Armies of ‘people-friendly’ robots are taking over factories across the world. But should autonomous robots be working alongside humans?
Baxter is one of Schneider Electric’s newest recruits. He works tirelessly in long shifts, moving electrical parts from assembly lines into test cells where they are checked for performance. He is dedicated, reliable and tolerant. But what makes Baxter really stand out is his relationship with his colleagues.
That’s because Baxter isn’t an ordinary employee, but a unique breed of human-friendly robot. Normally, factory robots are kept behind cages to protect humans from their speed and power. But Baxter’s advanced sensors mean that he can safely work alongside humans, freeing them up for more skilled tasks.
Baxter is just one of an army of ‘robot co-workers’ that are being rolled out on factory floors all over the world. These droids aim to break down the barriers between man and machine. In industry, they are already helping increase productivity and flexibility. In a wider setting, the technology could someday make the sci-fi dream of robot assistants a reality.
Human-robot collaboration is still in its early days, but a number of companies have made huge strides in the field in the past year. For instance, earlier this month, Baxter’s creator Rethink Robotics released a new Robot Positioning System that allows its machine to understand changing floor surfaces and adjust. Baxter also has force-feedback technology to safely move away if it collides with another person.
‘Manufacturing robots have always been caged, not only to protect the workers around them from harm, but also to protect their precisely configured environments from being disrupted by those same workers,’ said Scott Eckert, chief executive at Boston-based Rethink Robotics. ‘We’ve made it safe for the robot to work effectively in real-world conditions as well.’
’We’ve made it safe for the robot to work effectively in real-world conditions
Scott Eckert, Rethink Robotics
Baxter has a screen for a face, which projects cartoon eyes that show where the robot is looking. But this friendly droid could soon have competition from an equally sophisticated robot, dubbed YuMi, due to be released next year. Short for ‘You and Me’, its creator ABB says YuMi is ‘designed for a new era of automation’. The dual-arm droid is so accurate that the company claims it can easily thread a needle.
YuMi could be used during small parts assembly, where people and robots work hand-in-hand on the same tasks. For Mike Wilson, president of the British Automation and Robot Association, YuMi is one of the most exciting development in automation this year. ‘I believe this will both open up new applications and provide a step change in the way that robots can be applied within manufacturing,’ he said.
This change is already under way at a number of BMW factories which are using human-friendly machines by Danish group Universal Robots. They are safe to work around because they are relatively slow and lightweight. For now, they simply roll a layer of protective foil over electronics on the inside of a door of a car. The robot glues down material that is held in place by the human worker’s more nimble fingers.
’I believe [YuMi] will both open up new applications and provide a step change in the way that robots can be applied within manufacturing
Mike Wilson, British Automation and Robot Association
BMW is also working with MIT to find ways for robots to interact intelligently with their human colleagues. ABB does this by making human and robots swap tasks to learn each other’s preferences, and a similar approach is being taken by the research group. A recent study by MIT found that humans and robots working together in a team can be around 85 per cent more productive than teams made of either humans or robots alone.
Mike Counsell, director of UK Robotics, believes human workers need to be replaced by robots in some instances to improve output. In many areas, robots are just more productive, he says. Allowing them to work with humans also increases flexibility. His group, which specialises in laboratory automation, has seen its turnover increase by more than 50 per cent this year as demand for human-friendly droids increases.
‘Often it makes very little sense to automate every last stage of a process,’ he said. ‘Tasks that require complex visual inspection can sometimes be very challenging and so we feel that in some situations the requirements dictate that humans and machines co-operate together to a common end goal. Given time, robots and automation will be able to perform the vast majority of repetitive tasks within factories and laboratories.’
However, Counsell added that he doesn’t see machines replacing humans on the factory floor. ‘Human resources are simply being freed to perform different tasks that best suit their particular skill set,’ he said. In many situations they are augmenting the abilities of human workers. These robot co-workers could also improve human job satisfaction by giving people more time to do work that requires manual dexterity rather than repetitive stamina.
At the moment, the majority of research into human-friendly robots is being undertaken outside the UK. Wilson believes Britain is at risk of falling behind other nations heavily investing in robotics. ‘Apart from significant use of robots within the automotive industry we have seen growth throughout non-automotive manufacturing, but this is steady with no significant step change in the attitude of UK manufacturing towards the use of robots.’
While there may be some resistance to replacing human work with automated systems, the economic payback could be significant. Improvement in collaborative robotics is happening so fast that regulatory bodies are having trouble keeping up. For instance, the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) in Geneva is still working on pain-threshold standards to determine how much force a robot can safely apply to various parts of a human worker’s body.
Once these regulations are ironed out, however, a new breed of responsive robots will be working alongside humans. Unlike their stronger predecessors, the new collaborative robots will move more slowly and be less powerful. But together they could spark a robot revolution.
Why humans prefer letting robots take control
Recent research at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab suggests that letting robots have control over human tasks
in manufacturing is preferred by workers.
‘In our research we were seeking to find that sweet spot for ensuring that the human workforce is both satisfied and productive,’ said project lead Matthew Gombolay, a PhD student at CSAIL.
In the study, groups of two humans and one robot worked together in one of three conditions: manual (all tasks allocated by a human); fully autonomous (all tasks allocated by the robot); and semi-autonomous (one human allocates tasks to self, and a robot allocates tasks to other human).
The fully autonomous condition proved to be not only the most effective for the task, but also the method preferred by human workers. The workers were more likely to say that the robots ‘better understood them’ and ‘improved the efficiency of the team’.