Traditional and collaborative robots working safely with humans

Inside Machines: Traditional and collaborative robots, depending on the application, may be used partially or fully in areas with human workers, and there are new standards and applications designed to improve their safety capabilities.

By Ken McLaughlin March 27, 2016

While robots are catching on as a viable and efficient option on the plant floor, making sure they can operate safely with humans is still a challenge. Robots generally have no idea humans are around. Thus, they can cause great harm if humans enter their work path. Finding the right application can be difficult, but it is imperative. Traditional robots typically work in fenced areas where humans cannot interact with them. Collaborative robots, depending on the application, may be used partially or fully in areas with human workers, because sensors alert the robot to humans and slow them to safe speed and torque.

Traditionally, fenced and collaborative robotic applications each have unique characteristics and specific roles to play on the plant floor. However, some traditional robots are being designed to achieve the same benefit as a collaborative robot thanks to safety software and sensor technology developments. This used to be unthinkable with previous iterations because of the software and technological developments and the fact that traditional robots were kept away from humans while they operated.

A semi-collaborative subset of applications has become popular as a result of improved reliability of safety scanner technology coupled with robot safety systems. These applications allow a traditional industrial robot to be used and provide the same benefits as a collaborative robot. In addition, it provides for an increase in payload and speed, as well as a reduction in costs.

Technology developments have also changed plant floor real estate and how it is used. High-speed vision systems and LIDAR sensors allow for traditional robot fencing to be minimized or eliminated. This provides better visualization on the plant floor. As a result, equipment can be packed closer together, and individuals can easily work with a robot, allowing for quicker troubleshooting of issues that arise.

Over the years, we’ve gained a better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of robots and humans. While robots are dependable, 
reliable, and consistent in throughput, they cannot think and problem solve like humans can. A true partnership between individuals and robots lends itself to one of the best manufacturing processes. This partnership incorporates the best of both worlds—the consistency and throughput of robots and automation, and the ability to think, problem solve, and handle variability instinctively. Recent technological and safety developments are making such a concept become reality rather than a pipe dream.

Ken McLaughlin, general manager, automation, JMP Engineering. Edited by Chris Vavra, CFE Media, Control Engineering,


Key Concepts

Traditional and collaborative robots have their own unique features and roles on the plant floor, but recent technological developments are allowing each robot to behave more like the other.

Technology developments are allowing robots and humans to work together safely and allowing robots and humans to use their individual strengths to create a true partnership.

Consider this

What safety features and developments need to be made to make robot and human interaction on the plant floor safer?

ONLINE extra

See additional stories about collaborative robots including the March 2016 cover story linked below.