Editorial: Cobots and humans–can we get along?

In December, Denmark-based Universal Robots celebrated the 10-year anniversary of delivering the first commercially-viable collaborative robot. That such “cobot” was put in place by Lanatex, a Danish supplier of plastics and rubber for industrial applications. Rather than installing it behind safety caging or fenced off from humans—as per the norm for industrial robots—the company deployed it right alongside its employees. That was essentially unheard of at the time.

Ten years later, Lanatex still uses a co-bot from Universal Robots, and cobots are becoming the norm in factories around the world. Research group Interact Analysis estimated the cobot industry value at $400 million in 2017 and forecasted a 2018 value of $600 million. The firm expects cobot sales to top $7.5 billion by 2017 and account for 29% of the industrial robot market.

With the right plan for them in place, cobots undoubtedly raise the productivity level of those businesses that deploy them, whether that’s in material handling, packing, assembly, welding, quality testing, or something else. But there are two major factors that can slow down further widespread adoption of them: Safety, and the supposed “fear of human replacement.”

One of the top benefits of cobots is that they are supposed to safely operate along-side humans. But it only takes a handful of bad incidents for that quality to be in question. In early December, a robotic “picker” in a Robbinsville, NJ Amazon warehouse accidentally punctured an aerosol can of bear spray, which sprayed the substance upon 55 workers in the area. Two dozen of those employees were hospitalized, including one in critical condition. It was only the latest bad press for Amazon, which has had a troubled track record of safety incidents—among other employee complaints—at its highly-automated warehouses and fulfillment centers. Strangely enough, it wasn’t even the company’s first bear spray incident. In 2015, a robot in a Haslet, TX, warehouse ran over a can of bear spray that resulted in a fire department response.

The December bear spray incident gave more fuel to workers’ rights groups that argue robots and human workers can’t safely work alongside each other.

Since laws regarding cobots/warehouse robots are still in flux and developing as the technology develops, the legality of all of this is murky—making it hard to judge how safe or unsafe the use of cobots really is. One would think using robots for dangerous workplace jobs would reduce human injury. But, an over-reliance on robots could result in complacency and dangerously backfire.

As someone who has seen a variety of co-bots up-close, I’ve been very impressed with the level of safety that is engineered into them. At my publications before EE, I regularly attended the annual International Manufacturing Technology Symposium show in Chicago, where the exhibitor booths seem to be more populated with robots every year. There, top cobot makers such as ABB, Universal Robotics, and others emphasized the safety features of their products. Those features include sensors that either slow or stop all functions when a human enters a defined proximity; and user-friendly programmability to restrict the power and force a cobot can move with. This past April, I was able to watch a number of “Sawyer” robots from Rethink Robotics grab and pass glass panels to human workers on the assembly line at a General Electric lighting plant in North Carolina. They seemed harmless.

As testing and sensor technology improves with cobots, safety will become less of a worry. Eventually, hopefully there will be a higher chance of me stubbing my toe on my home robot vacuum than of a cobot injuring a warehouse worker.

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