Jonathan Wilkins, marketing director of industrial automation supplier European Automation, discusses the newest and perhaps most exciting realm of industrial robotics –collaborative robots
The world’s first industrial robot was an idea conceived after a conversation about science fiction novels between inventors George Devol and Joseph Engleburger in 1954. Six years later, Unimate had secured its place in the robotic hall of fame as the world’s first industrial robot.
It was then put to work on the General Motors assembly line in 1961. Inevitably, the public were sceptical of the safety issues surrounding Unimate. And with only Gort, the laser-firing robot from the 1950s sci-fi movie The Day the Earth Stood Still for reference, who can blame them? But after 50 years of practice, today’s industrial robots are a much less scary affair.
The term ‘collaborative’ simply describes robots that can operate safely alongside their human counterparts on the factory floor. Traditionally, robotic machinery was constricted to work inside robotic work cells with physical barriers to protect human workers. Today, the new generation of robots is completely cage free. But that doesn’t mean these robots are totally devoid of health and safety features.
Unlike industrial robots of the past, collaborative robots are specifically designed to work safely around people. In fact, since ABB Robotics introduced YuMi, it’s two-armed collaborative robot, earlier this year, it has been independently certified as safe to work in close proximity to humans on the same assembly tasks.
To prevent accidents with human workers, sensors are installed on the robot that react to human contact and monitor the location of humans on the factory floor. This way, if anybody does get too close the machinery, it automatically shuts down. What’s more, the strength, speed and force of this collaborative machinery is limited to avoid causing serious injury if contact does occur.
In addition to this, many collaborative robots require little to no skill to program. Most are so simple that anybody who can use a smartphone or tablet has the ability to program them, a world away from the complex robots of just a decade ago, which required highly skilled technicians to program and watch over them while they operated.
One industry that is being transformed by collaborative machinery is automotive manufacturing. It’s no secret that the sector has always been at the forefront of industrial robotics. Since the early 1960s automotive manufacturers have been using robotic equipment but since then, a lot has changed. To keep up with the competitive nature of the industry, manufacturing lines need to be more efficient, flexible and productive than ever before.
Inevitably, many will see this advancement in robotics as a further threat to human jobs on the production line, but that’s simply not true. Just as a concrete mixer is designed to help, not replace, the bricklayer, collaborative robotics are simply intended to assist the workers on the assembly line. In fact, some experts predict that just as an engineer uses a computer to make their job easier, production line workers will use a collaborative robot to assist them with theirs.
In fact, one of the reasons BMW recently introduced collaborative robots to its assembly lines was due to the drop in motivation it saw in its human workers when they were forced to perform menial tasks all day. With collaborative robots on hand, it freed human employees to focus on jobs that required intellect, judgment and creativity, leaving the robots to pick up the tasks that no one wanted to do.
In the past decade, robots have come a long way. From scary, somewhat threatening machines held behind intimidating safety barriers to the slick robotic technology we see today, potentially capable of working hand-in-hand with humans. Of the many innovative applications used in today’s automotive industry, collaborative robotics is certainly one of the most exciting.