A new generation of sophisticated robots may help to ease the transition to an aging industrial workforce.

New generation of robots moving towards closer collaboration with people

Robots have been used in heavy industry, especially in automobile manufacture, since the early 1960s. However, the fact that these machines have always been very heavy and lacking in maneuverability means that up to now they have always been used behind safety barriers, very often inside a protective cage to separate them from the human workforce, thus sacrificing some productivity. Moreover the robots were systematically confined to precisely-programmed tasks, usually limited to doing heavy jobs.Now a number of robot manufacturers have been working, inter alia with auto-maker BMW, to develop a new generation of robots which are more versatile and responsive and able to carry out more complex tasks in close collaboration with human workers. These new helpers will not be replacing the workforce any time soon, but will be able to provide physical support to supplement their human workmates’ know-how and so help to extend the working lives of older employees.

More responsive, cooperative robots

In the BMW plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina, which turns out 1,000 cars a day and employs 7,000 workers, slow-moving robots from Danish company Universal Robots help human workers with precise, meticulous tasks directly on the production line. BMW is now seeking to push the potential for human-robot collaboration and is working to get even more sophisticated machines up and running, which will be able to work directly and closely alongside people out at the cutting edge of artificial intelligence, providing immediate assistance without being given any orders. Recent improvements in command software and safety levels mean that robots can be built to work in close proximity with humans without compromising on either safety or efficiency. The objective is to maintain or even increase current security levels while making the robot more versatile. At the moment alert systems at most factories will shut the robot down completely and thus bring the entire production line to a halt, with consequent loss of productivity.  Clearly what is needed is a monitoring and control system better suited to the layout of the factory and the SafetyEYE system, made by German company Pilz, provides a solution here. SafetyEYE is basically a multi-camera system that can be used to enable a robot to detect the arrival of a human being within its area of operations and so, if necessary, slow down without stopping completely.

Coping efficiently with an aging workforce

In order to integrate robots into human worker teams, BMW plans to bring into service safe robots which can move and work autonomously alongside humans. This type of robot will help to ease the transition to an aging factory workforce, assisting and supporting older workers who nevertheless retain a high capability and have at their disposal all the know-how built up over the years. BMW’s Head of Innovation Stefan Bartscher explains: “Our workers are getting older (…). We actually need something to compensate and keep our workforce healthy, and keep them in labor for a long time. We want to get the robots to support the humans.”  In line with these needs, Boston-based Rethink Roboticshas developed Baxter, a human-looking robot which can memorize and learn tasks through simple movement pattern recognition and is currently in use in many small factories to move heavy objects. This is the sort of robot that will now increasingly be sent to work on large-scale production lines such as those at the BMW plant. And in the longer term, these new cooperative robots might well move out of the factory and take on jobs helping out in our schools and homes.





By Thomas Meyer
Journalist, Business Analyst