52 - robot_cobot_cyborg - iStock_000025233615_FullModern operations managers are facing a tough decision, rather like Prince Hamlet in Shakespeare’s classic play.

Perhaps not a matter of life or death, but the decision to use cobots, collaborative robots, certainly raises questions about the future of our human workforce.

What is a cobot?

This new generation of robots are a world away from the giant, tireless mechanical arms we see manipulating large objects on car manufacturing lines.

I was lucky enough to interact with several at Plant and Asset Management 2016. Small, mobile and smart, they are designed to work alongside people in the workplace, instead of being fixed and caged.

This is made possible by a number of features like cameras and multiple sensors on and around the joints. When the cobot feels or senses another object in its path, like a human, it will quickly stop without exerting harmful pressure on the “obstacle”.

Well that’s the theory, I did get pushed about by one of them! It reminded me of a horse who liked to squash me in her stable.

Another differentiating feature is the ease with which they can be “taught” to do tasks. No intensive programming required. After simple guidance from the exhibitor, I could teach the robot what I wanted it to do.

This is going to revolutionise the use of robotics in our workplaces. Instead of being confined to long runs of repetitive tasks, these devices can be quickly moved and set working on a range of tasks.

And that brings us on to some of their other features.

  • They are very precise, one I saw was quoted as having 0.1mm accuracy.
  • Some use cameras that can read, like a human, information from human machine interfaces (screens to me). No cables needed.
  • Some can “feel” their way into fixtures and machines which means they can be used in existing work cells without layout change.
  • The cost of each unit is falling and ROI is measured in days. (It’s around £25k for a basic model and 195 days payback)

For me, the one that stands out most is Sawyer.

“He” has eyes!

Sawyer the cobot

 

It’s a psychological thing I guess, but he feels friendly and easy to be alongside. I met Sawyer on the Active8 Robots stand and taught him successfully, without being pushed about.

Giving artificial intelligence a physical look is an important feature for their designer, Rodney Brooks, founder and CTO of Rethink Robotics.

So what’s the dilemma?

As the costs of these smart and flexible robots fall, will they push people out of work?

Weighing up all the different arguments, I think our workforce will have to change and adapt.

In several cases the driver behind their development has been to meet a shortage of human workers. In others it’s been to take on the dirty, difficult and dangerous tasks.

These are my favourite examples; robotic bulldozers in Japan, and Spot the US military robot dog who scouts for danger.

Most of the developers see cobots as being another tool for a worker to use, rather than a replacement.

Of course the makers of these devices claim that cobots increase productivity. They are certainly being purchased in greater numbers across automotive, semi-conductor, electronics, food and consumer manufacturers.

For those people that are displaced it will be a case of retraining for roles where demand is growing, like those that require an artisan’s touch.

The trick is going to be matching that demand with training in new skill sets. And for those of us in improvement, ensuring we don’t robotise waste.