TU spin-offs: What became of ... MetraLabs? Service robots made in Ilmenau

Award-winning mobile service robots as helpers in factories, supermarkets and fashion boutiques: since 2007, the TU Ilmenau spin-off MetraLabs GmbH has been producing and exporting to countries such as the USA, China and Australia. The robots from Ilmenau navigate autonomously through a wide variety of environments and are in demand worldwide.

TU Ilmenau/Dino Junski
TU Ilmenau graduates Dr. Christian Martin, Dr. Andreas Bley and Dr. Johannes Trabert are the founders and managing directors of MetraLabs. The company specializes in mobile service robots for various applications.

When the lights go out in the supermarket at night, TORY's work begins. Night after night, he drives through the shelves and scans the product stocks. When morning comes, TORY retreats to the supermarket warehouse until his next shift. Kmart Australia's operations would be unthinkable without TORY, but the hard worker is not a human, but a mobile service robot. As one of MetraLabs' most popular export hits, it is used for stocktaking in fashion stores and supermarkets worldwide.

The brains behind TORY and other service robots are TU Ilmenau graduates Dr. Andreas Bley, Dr.-Ing Christian Martin and Dr.-Ing Johannes Trabert. With their company MetraLabs, they have specialized in mobile service robots since the early 2000s and today export robots "made in Ilmenau" to the USA, Europe and Australia. Since its foundation, MetraLabs has installed over 700 robots in various applications. The everyday helpers are used in supermarkets, production halls or sports and clothing stores and now have more than 400,000 kilometers of driving experience.

Whether as shopping assistants, care assistants or inventory workers - MetraLabs robots are in demand. Their biggest selling point is their sophisticated autonomous navigation, as Dr. Johannes Trabert explains:

Our service robots are very adaptable and find their own way. After a short installation, they learn their surroundings, navigate independently through rooms and react quickly to obstacles. You won't find this quality anywhere else.

MetraLabs owes the quality of its products to its lead in knowledge and experience in the field of robotics. While the use of service robots is becoming increasingly commonplace today due to the shortage of skilled workers, they were still in the early stages of development when MetraLabs was founded in 2001. Scientists at the Neuroinformatics and Cognitive Robotics Group at TU Ilmenau, led by Prof. Horst-Michael Groß, have been researching these robots since the 1990s. The founders of MetraLabs, Andreas Bley, Christian Martin, Matthias Merten and Johannes Trabert, dismantled robots in the group's laboratories, carried out repairs, further developed software and laid the foundations for MetraLabs.

Already in the second semester of their studies, the fellow students decide to found their own company. Initially, they offered software services for other companies, but they soon developed the vision of making service robots more suitable for everyday use. Dr. Christian Martin remembers the beginnings of his company:

The robots at the time were very large and heavy, you could describe them as moving tons. Our aim was therefore to develop lighter and intelligent robots that would make everyday life easier for people.

The founders are focusing on putting their robots to use at an early stage and testing them in everyday life. Together with the Neuroinformatics and Cognitive Robotics Group, they develop the world's first interactive shopping robot, which is later awarded the Thuringian Research Prize. TOOMAS is initially used in three toom DIY stores, where it guides customers to their desired products. A year later, robots PAUL and OLAF return customers' dishes to a KFC branch in Mainz, while robot AMOR serves as an autonomously driving base for measuring devices in the production of semiconductors at Infineon. With a steadily growing customer portfolio, MetraLabs is expanding and exporting its service robots to more and more countries. In addition to Europe, customers for the service robots include North and South America, Australia, China and Saudi Arabia.

From around 1000 square meters of company premises in the center of Ilmenau, TORY, CARY and co. now find their way into factories, supermarkets and fashion stores. Research and development, production, marketing and quality assurance all take place at one location. The company benefits from short distances to suppliers, Ilmenau's central location in Germany and its proximity to TU Ilmenau. From working students to specialists and managers with a degree from TU Ilmenau - the majority of the 60 employees come from the university. In addition, MetraLabs and the Neuroinformatics and Cognitive Robotics Group continue to work closely together on joint research projects.

Thanks to its specialist expertise and the advantages of its location in Ilmenau, MetraLabs wants to assert itself in the highly competitive market for mobile service robots, as Dr. Andreas Bley explains:

At the moment, many companies are sprouting up in the robotics sector, but we have an innovative edge. We want to continue to grow in the future and contribute to the acceptance of mobile service robots in everyday life.

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