Automation does not have to mean joblessness and existential anxiety for humans. Collaborative robotics shows how machines can work together with people and create new tasks that are much more rewarding.
People do not like to vacuum-clean. No wonder – it is one of the most boring chores around the house. Push-pull, push-pull, change the dirt container, repeat – sounds just like the kind of job that is perfectly fitting for a machine.
House appliance companies know this, and they have the statistics to prove it – the market for vacuum-cleaning robots has tripled in the last five years. They did not replace cleaners though, just made their job a little bit easier, so they can focus on tasks that only humans can do around the house.
Collaborative robots or cobots do not take your jobs, they just do the tasks that humans do not like to do, so we can pursue things that we are better at – solving problems, being creative, using our fine motor skills and agility.
An everyday reality
For thousands of workers in Amazon’s fulfilment centres around the United States, human-robot collaboration is already an everyday reality. The mega-retailer deploys more than 100,000 cobots in logistical facilities to work alongside and augment its human workforce. These orange machines look a lot like robot vacuum cleaners, and they are also programmed to do repetitive tasks that are the most fatiguing and boring for people – looking for items and carrying them from one point to the other.
The more interesting and demanding task of monitoring, calibrating and troubleshooting falls on the humans. According to Amazon, their cobots created 300,000 new human jobs since 2012.
A similar story unfolded in SEW-Eurodrive’s factory in Baden-Württemberg, Germany. There low-lying robotic trucks are resupplying workstations with heavy parts, meanwhile, the human mechanics are focusing on assembling complete drive systems.
Elsewhere in the factory, a robotic arm is picking components out of bins for the humans. As the Financial Times reported, the workers who used to stand along the assembly line all day, now are happy that they can do more complex jobs with the support of their machine apprentices.
In close proximity to humans
Traditional industrial robots are not user friendly. They were designed to do repeated tasks blazingly fast on an assembly line, safely separated from humans to avoid injuries.
Cobots, on the other hand, are designed to be in close proximity to humans, collaborate with them, and move around independently in their shared workspace. They are robots, out of the cage.
Cobots are equipped with safety sensors and software, so they can slow down when a human worker is close to them, and in case they bump into somebody, they stop immediately. This also means they do not take extra space from the factory floor.
„Cobots will not break any bones, you probably will not even get a bruise if they bump into you” – says László Sárkány, who works as an engineer for robot maker Fanuc’s Hungarian branch.
Another advantage compared to large industrial robots is that you do not need a programming degree to operate a cobot. It is as easy as pulling the cobot’s arm into position and then saving that movement on a tablet – explains Sárkány.
Being close to humans also means that collaborative robots cannot reach the speeds of their traditional industrial counterparts. However, what companies sacrifice in speed, they can gain in agility.
„Product lifecycles are becoming shorter and shorter, so factories have to be able to produce parts in smaller numbers and bigger varieties” – says Dániel Szabó, who works as an application engineer at Omron Electronics, Hungary.
This is why instead of long assembly lines; modern factories have smaller production cells. Collaborative robots can be easily integrated into these workspaces since they can move around to wherever you need them.
There is evidence that human-robot collaboration can also increase productivity. Experiments by researchers at MIT show that human idle time can decrease by 85 per cent when they work in cooperation with cobots.
The efficiency benefit is even more evident in warehouses where human workers spend 80 per cent of their time walking around looking for items, and only 20 per cent doing tasks that actually generate revenue.
Cobots can do the bulk of the travelling, freeing up the humans for more productive work.
There is no doubt that many of the jobs that humans do today are going to be done by robots tomorrow. But collaborative robotics show that automation can also mean the liberation of humans from repetitive tasks that most people don’t like to do anyway and create more challenging and rewarding jobs in the process.
This article is part of the #DemocraCE project.