Collaborative Robots Making a New Workplace Paradigm
Robots in the Workplace
Over the course of my career I have designed and built a number of robotic material-handling systems. The rules for designing such systems were always the same: Robots and Humans don’t mix. In the past many safe guards were put into place to insure the safety of both the human operators and factory workers. Today the push for higher levels of integration of robotics in manufacturing environments is forcing system designers to challenge these notions of exclusion and replace them with new techniques for robots and humans to interact.
Introducing Collaborative Robots “Cobots”
A new outlook on how robots and humans can interact in the workplace is emerging. This has lead to the creation of the collaborative robot or as it is more commonly referred “Cobot”.
Terms that are frequently used in the robotics industry are: Collaborative Robot (Cobot), Collaborative Workspace, and Collaborative Operation (Human-Robot Interaction or HRI).
Collaborative Robot– A robot designed for direct interaction with a human within a defined collaborative workspace.
Collaborative Workspace– A safeguarded space where the robot and a human can perform tasks simultaneously during production operation.
Collaborative Operation (Human-Robot Interaction or HRI)– A state in which purposely designed robots work in direct cooperation with a human within a defined workspace.
Cobots Require New Safety Standards
Imagine a work cell in which a robot is hefting an engine block. The robot swings the engine block around from a machining station and presents it to a human operator for inspection or the insertion of some fine-detail components. The robot then swings the engine block back into place for a next series of operations. While the robot is performing its tasks the operator is preparing the next set of components, and the process repeats. This scenario is easy to describe but carries a whole host of safety-related issues.
Safety is the primary concern in regards to the development of Cobots. In a recent article published by http://www.robotics.org, Michael Gerstenberger a Sales Senior Applications Engineer at KUKA Robotics Corporation, and member of the R15.06 safety subcommittee, begins some of his safety presentations by saying “There is no such thing as a safe robot.”
“Meaning the robot itself is only part of the equation,” he explains. “Even if I can make the robot so it won’t move fast enough to smack you and it won’t press hard enough to squeeze you, if you put a knife or a laser or a drill at the end, it’s going to hurt you. It often depends more on what it’s doing and what kind of tool it has rather than the robot itself.”
There is major work being done in the U.S., and other countries to revise old safety standards so that developers can proceed with tool and system designs based on intended applications. The old safety standards tried to put limits on robots in terms of speed, force, etc. This mindset is what led to physical keep-out areas filled with interlocks. The new safety standards remove such limitations and instead use the concept of task-defined safety.
Currently, there are two such standards: ISO 10218:2011 and U.S.-adopted ANSI/RIA R15.06-2012. These are “live” standards in that active committees exist to continue to develop and refine what it means for a robot to be truly collaborative.
The Future of Collaborative Robots
From a developer’s point of view, robotic systems will need to make greater use of sensor technology to detect when a human enters a work area, and software technology so the robot can decide what to do about it.
From a commercial standpoint, the industry is becoming crowded with major and minor players, each with their own spin on how to get their piece of the pie. This was evident at a conference in San Jose, California called International Collaborative Robots Workshop held by the Robotics Industry Association. This one-day event attracted over 20 vendors, each showing off their offerings in the marketplace with tools ranging from heavy equipment movers to little desktop units.
It’s a great time for robotics developers. The new paradigm about how robots and humans can interact successfully and safely in the workplace is opening up lots of new opportunities. If you want to get up to speed on the topic, a great place to start is http://www.robotics.org. We’re not quite at the Robin Williams character in Bicentennial Man, but at least we’re moving in the right direction.