Some tasks require a human touch. Others are suited to automation. But what if people and machines worked side by side with both doing what they do best?
That’s the idea behind collaborative robots, or co-bots, that interact directly with people in a defined workspace. Joint research by MIT and BMW found that productivity surged by about 85% when robots and humans teamed up rather than working alone.
The global market for co-bots is small now but entering a high-growth phase. At a price point of $24,000, co-bots are cheaper than their industrial counterparts. Their applicability starts on the factory floor, but extends from manufacturing to healthcare, food, the environment, and other industries.
Out of the cage and into the workplace
Collaborative systems differ from industrial robots in other important ways. Typically they work cage-free, or without safety fencing. Co-bots tend to provide unskilled labor for routine or repetitive processes.
They have arms that can mimic human motions from shoulder to wrist. Fine motor skills, combined with computing power, mean they can sort out good and bad parts based on specifications, make welds, and work on circuit boards, among other things.
These steady workers are being humanized to create an emotional attachment to their colleagues. For example, Baxter is a humanoid robot from Rethink Robotics whose face is an LCD display that responds to human interaction.
These co-bots can identify a human coworker, who wears a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag, and then initiate the correct planned activities.
Cooperate rather than compete
The fact that co-bots are designed to help rather than replace people has a number of implications:
Division of labor
Employees become responsible for training and supervising co-bots. Training may include guiding a robot’s arm to teach a job and programming it using a smart phone or tablet.
The shift in responsibilities means that workers must master new skills including technology. A different skill set also broadens workforce opportunities. Bosch, a multinational engineering and electronics company, employs people with severe disabilities to work with co-bots on their assembly line.2
Instead of buying co-bots, another model is to hire them during peak periods as contract workers with a variable cost rather than a capital expense.
Small and mid-sized businesses (SMEs) are starting to tap co-bots to better compete with low-wage manufacturers and keep local jobs.
Friends rather than foes
Some fear collaborative robots will eliminate jobs. But co-bots actually may help to retain jobs by making the workplace environment more efficient and desirable. Early indications are that many employees who work with co-bots are happier, more productive, and less physically strained.
1. “Meet the cobots: Humans and robots together on the factory floor,” by Peggy Hollinger, Financial Times, May 6, 2016.
2. “How to make working with robots appealing for manufacturing employees, including those with severe disabilities,” February 3, 2016, Fraunhofer IAO