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Voice meets high tech: Controlling production plants by speech

An employee carefully balances a heavy roll on both arms to the production line. He has no hand free for a keystroke. "Open unwind."  A mechanism is set in motion and opens the coil only by speech. Now the heavy roll can be inserted and the production process continues. 

What sounds like dreams of the future could soon be reality at Roche; Manuel Wenz and Lukas Nagel are working on exactly that: a language assistant for production systems. The two engineers work in the Manufacturing Technology Solutions unit at Roche in Mannheim, which is concerned with the implementation of manufacturing technologies and processes that cannot be bought off the peg. 

Voice meets high tech

Everyone knows Alexa, Siri and Co. by now. They have found their way into the lives and homes of many. "During a workshop with our customers, the idea of controlling a machine by voice was born and we wondered if there was a wider need for the popular voice control assistants at Roche," explains Manuel. The clear answer: Yes! 

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We came across many use cases where voice control would make our colleagues' work easier,
says Lukas.

The two automation engineers started the project about a year and a half ago with a market research and a feasibility study. First of all, they set out to find a speech recognition software that - for reasons of IT security - could do without an internet connection. The next challenge was to couple the voice control system with the machine controls and thus "translate" the recognized commands for controlling the production systems.  The result of their work is called E.V.A. - short for Electronic Voice Assistant - and works, almost like a universal key, on almost all production systems.

You are curious how it sounds when E.V.A. recognizes and implements voice commands? Listen in.

Unlike Siri and Alexa, E.V.A. does not have intelligent learning. This is not even desired with regard to safety in the production environment. Thus, possible misinterpretations of a learning system are consciously avoided. Manuel and Lukas teach E.V.A. new terms via laptop. This only takes a few minutes per command. In this way, the engineers can decide together with the users in production which requests it needs to understand and implement. 

From the laboratory to the test phase

The next step for Manuel, Lukas and E.V.A. is now a test phase in a real production environment. When product developers set up a new facility at the Mannheim site in the coming months, E.V.A. will also come into use for the first time. 

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The production environment differs in some ways from the laboratory environment in which we have been testing so far. For example, the ambient noise is much louder there, so we have to adjust the microphone and loudspeakers accordingly,
explains Manuel.

Their goal? E.V.A. will become an essential part of the operating concept for production systems, providing effective and lasting support for colleagues.

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