Rethink Robotics’ robot Sawyer, is just one example of automated technology being introduced to factories. Increased automation in factories is optimising productivity in manufacturing. While some people fear that the human workforce will ultimately be replaced by robots, manufacturers disagree as they are aware that both machine efficiency and human intuition are vital for optimum productivity.
So, how can manufacturers ensure that robots and humans can work efficiently and safely in the same workspace? Industrial robots are in the factory to complete either repetitive tasks or those that are too dangerous for human workers. Traditionally robots are heavy, simple and isolated to prevent humans getting too close.
There are now technologies that allow humans to work side by side in the factory with collaborative robots, otherwise known as cobots. But, what makes them collaborative?
“Collaborative robot is a verb, not a noun. The collaboration is dependent on what the robot is doing, not the robot itself,” explained Pat Davison, director of standards for the Robotic Industry Association (RIA). A collaborative robot is therefore defined by the type of task it performs and the space where it operates, rather than the robot itself.
Collaborative robots are specifically designed to work in direct cooperation with a human, in a defined workspace. There are also collaborative workplaces that are safeguarded spaces where the robot and human can perform tasks simultaneously.
There are multiple reasons why robots like Sawyer are becoming more popular in factories.
Cobots are affordable, highly adaptable and easy to install. Small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) are eager to adopt the technology and the manufacturing sector expects to see huge growth of cobots over the next few years.
Cobots also support the human workers themselves. Robots can complete the heavy lifting and repetitive jobs that can cause human strain. This gives human workers more time to complete more creative and intricate work.
The key consideration for manufacturers that want to benefit from human and machine interaction is how to keep workers safe. Cobots have features that prevent them from injuring any humans when in operation, because humans will be working in close proximity with the machine.
All cobots have rounded and soft surfaces to reduce the risk of injury if a human gets too close to the machine. They are also fitted with sensors that detect anything entering their proximity and have force-limited joints that will instantly stop if a human gets too close.
These safety features are vital in preventing injury, but there are other factors that manufacturers must consider when investing in collaborative robots.
There are regulations, such as ISO 10218-2:2011, that control how facilities integrate robotics into the assembly line to ensure all workers are kept safe. As part of this regulation, all manufacturers that use cobots will be required to implement safety protocols on site. However, the application will ultimately determine the safety requirements, rather than the robot itself. For example, if the robot has sharp knives attached to it then manufacturers should avoid human-machine interaction.
Collaborative robots are designed to be inherently safe, depending on the end-of-arm tooling and application. In comparison to industrial robots, cobots are capable of far more on the factory floor and can adapt to the requirements of the facility and production.
In the future, advancements in machine learning and artificial intelligence could increase the capabilities of cobots. If cobots become more intelligent, they will be able to complete more difficult tasks and remember previous work to help them in the future. Machine learning may also mean that cobots will be able to diagnose themselves and fix any technical issues to complete work more efficiently.
Cobots have the potential to radically change the manufacturing sector. However, there are still some skills that a robot has not been able to perfect. A robot may be able to complete a repetitive task with complete accuracy, but it is not as agile as a human. Cobots lack dexterity and therefore cannot complete more intricate tasks that humans can.
Unlike older, industrial robots, cobots have design features needed to keep workers safe. Facilities managers must combine the machine strength and precision of robots like Sawyer, with human ability to see, think and adapt for the perfect factory. So, if you find out you’ll be working next to a robot like Sawyer, you can sleep well knowing that he will be a safe, supportive and efficient colleague.