Collaborative robots and humans working together

Companies and researchers continue to work on developing robots that can work safely with humans on the factory floor without enclosures and be able to adapt and learn from human behavior. This has many potential benefits for a manufacturing industry that is becoming more specialized and seeks higher levels of automation to boost productivity.

By Chris Vavra April 6, 2015

A major topic of discussion at Automate 2015 in Chicago was
human-robot interaction. The four speakers at the Association for Advancing Automation’s (A3) presentation "Collaborative robots: Where we’re headed" tackled the question head-on: Can robots be created and programmed to work alongside humans safely? What if they could perform tasks cooperatively with humans and assist them in their day-to-day tasks? All four speakers agreed that the potential for collaborative robots is great and that the research and developments happening right now will go a long way toward making the future bright for manufacturing innovation. 

Robots and people together on the factory floor

Industrial robots make up 98% of robots sold, and 65% of robots sold in the U.S. are in the automotive industry, according to Rethink Robotics chief marketing officer, Jim Lawton. Robots are used to improve efficiency on the factory floor and can perform tasks that can be repeated without human help or assistance after setup and programming.

When robots began handling tasks on assembly lines and in factories, they were designed to manipulate and move objects. They were larger with many components. As robots progressed, the mechanics became simpler and the technology was adapted to perform tasks with even greater accuracy than before.

While robots are very good at handling automated tasks, more than 90% of tasks in factories are not automated, according to Lawton.

"To automate the last 90%, semi-structured environments need to be built so the robot and the worker can be in the same space safely," Lawton said.

Collaborative robots that can work and function alongside humans would go a long way toward resolving some of those challenges. Lawton believes that while collaborative robots will be used for substitution now, eventually they’ll be used in ways we can’t even consider at present because of developments in software and technology. Smarter robots are going to be able to apply common sense, and they’ll be able to adapt to changing situations, he suggested.

According to Phil Crowther, global product manager small robots, ABB Robotics, this will go a long way toward eliminating some preconceived notions people have about robots on the factory floor.

"People think they’re too hard to program and too hard to use. They want the designer to make it easy," he said.

There are other misconceptions when it comes to robots. According to a survey by the Association for Advancing Automation (A3), only 35% of consumers think working with robots is safe, and about 70% of consumers believe there won’t be a positive economic impact with increasing automation. 

Technology and safety developments

Safe and collaborative robots, Crowther said, will significantly reduce floor space and installation cost by 20%-30%. The software developments reduce hardware developments, which saves overall costs. As a result, robots will become less challenging for the average user to use and, as a result, more flexible and useful on the factory floor.

Developments in materials and technology also are helping drive down costs. Newer and lighter materials are being developed that are stronger and less costly. Sensors, which have been dropping in price for the last several years, are getting an assist from the video game industry. Companies like Microsoft, which created the Kinect for the Xbox 360 and Xbox One video game consoles, are helping design sensors that allow robots to have a better sense of their environments.

This is important for worker safety, as Crowther demonstrated in a series of short videos as an example. If humans and robots are going to work together, then the robot needs to be able to sense its surroundings and adjust or shut down if a human gets too close.

That doesn’t mean, however, that robots will ever be 100% safe. A human face or neck is obviously more vulnerable than a shoulder, for instance, and even if the robot can limit its speed or force, the robot’s tooling or what it is holding might cause injury. "Risk assessments will still be there even with collaborative robots, but we need to work out solutions to increase safety," Crowther said. Standards are under development for providing guidance and lowering risk when robots and humans share the same space. 

Developing and adapting thought in robots

Concepts like cognitive computing are getting more attention and development when it comes to collaborative robots. Cognitive computing allows a machine to think more like a human through deep learning and advanced analytics.

"Agency or free will defines us as humans," Lawton said. "It also gives us a creative ability that makes us stand out. A robot has as much agency as it is programmed."

Through programming and development, a collaborative robot interacts and gets enabled agency. By enabling agency, Lawton said, collaborative robots can provide the ability to drive innovation.

Researchers are looking into developing that agency and helping robots think more like humans. Professor Julie Shah from MIT is working on developing robots that can work and function with humans and adapt to minor disturbances. Even when a robot is programmed to perform a task, it doesn’t always work perfectly. Sometimes the robot fails to install a part correctly or perhaps there’s a last-minute change that a human notices. When a human enters the workspace, the robot shuts down instead of moving on and adjusting to a new task like a human would. Shah and her team are working on robots that can adapt to these disturbances so production doesn’t grind to a halt.

The challenge, Shah said, is programming and teaching the robot to anticipate when and where someone will be and then to re-task the robot as needed. That requires being able to accurately predict what a person will do. The team was able to develop machine learning algorithms that could predict within 400 ms with 80% accuracy of where someone will be.

Even with all of that, human behavior can be unpredictable at the best of times. The robot might be able to predict what one person does, but another person might do something completely different. Currently, "The best team members are the ones who anticipate the reactions and steps of their teammates," Shah said. 

The next industrial revolution

Ebsen Ostergaard, CTO, Universal Robots, believes we are on the cusp of a fifth industrial revolution. The fourth revolution, he believes, came with the advent of the industrial Internet of Things (IoT). The changes in manufacturing and the ability to interconnect in ways we could only imagine even 10 years ago have dramatically increased efficiency. All of this efficiency and the ability to interconnect, however, has come at the expense of the personalized element of manufacturing, he said.

The fifth industrial revolution, Ostergaard believes, will be focused on making products not on a mass scale but in a customized or personalized matter with items suited to a smaller number of users. He cited the example of the microbrewers that have been popping up all over the world and their popularity with consumers—especially younger ones. He showed a short video clip of a company called Yooshu that uses a robot to create customized flip-flops using a combination of lasers and additive manufacturing that are designed for the specific wearer at a kiosk.

"It might cost three or four times more, but there is a real craftsmanship behind it," Ostergaard said. "And the consumer realizes that."

Collaborative robots can play a key role in this industrial revolution by helping humans design and manufacture these customizable products quickly and efficiently regardless of the size of the company. The collaborative are also designed to be used by everyone and not just experts. Ostergaard said that collaborative robots provide automation for everybody, and that they can give production companies an advantage with their low total cost of ownership (TCO).

"The manufacturing industry needs this technology. There is so much potential, and we need to have a pragmatic approach about it," Ostergaard said.

Lawton agreed. "It’s not tomorrow, and it’s probably not next week or next month, but the possibilities for collaborative robots are endless, and the future is going to be a really exciting one."

– Chris Vavra is production editor, Control Engineering, CFE Media,

Key concepts

  • Companies and researchers are working on making it safer for humans and robots to work together.
  • Progress has been made in teaching robots human behavior and teaching them to anticipate what humans are going to do next.
  • The fifth industrial revolution will involve manufacturing that is focused on customization for the individual rather than mass production.

Consider this

As collaborative robots become more commonplace, what applications do you think they could be used for?

ONLINE extra

Learn more about collaborative robots and some of the safety standards involved in ensuring worker safety in a related article below. Also see additional stories about Automate and Promat.

Author Bio: Chris Vavra is senior editor for WTWH Media LLC.