Interacting with Automation

Working in conjunction with robots, rather than simply harnessing their power, may represent the next step toward fully integrating machines into the industrial workplace.


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I’m intrigued by the concept of “collaborative robotics.” You may have seen FANUC’s prototype for the CR-35iA at IMTS last fall, but the official launch came in April at the company’s annual Open House in Oshino, Japan. Although many new technologies were introduced, this new robot definitely drew a crowd.

Although somewhat similar machines have been introduced by companies such as ABB and Rethink Robotics, with some described as “robot co-workers,” the concept centers on automation designed for safe interaction with human beings in the manufacturing environment. And that doesn’t mean within the same building, or the same general area, but actually sharing the same workspace…and safely.

How is this achieved? In FANUC’s case, the robot is covered with a soft green jacket, with the color intended to indicate approachability. If the robot comes into contact with another object within its prescribed pathway, it stops moving. Same thing if someone approaches the robot and touches it. Just think about how much square footage this could open up on the plant floor, since there would be less need for safety guarding in these shared spaces.

Collaborative robots move more slowly than models designed to perform certain functions with blazing speed, which still require safety fencing. These high-speed versions will probably always work best free of the constraints of interacting with humans, or design concerns involving their presence. Although it’s still fairly early in their development, “helper” robots are currently used for “pick and place” procedures and in assembly operations where heavy lifting and repetitive motions might cause injury to a human worker.

Beyond these collaborative functions may be the development of intelligent technologies that enable robots to respond to the presence of human beings in more subtle ways than simply shutting down. A nice compromise between the safety of a slow-moving robot and the sheer speed of high-power versions might be one that moves quickly with no one around and then automatically slows, and finally stops, as a person—or a forklift, or a delivery cart—draws near. Bundle that with FANUC’s “zero downtime” self-monitoring maintenance system and you have a robot that not only takes care of itself, but monitors the safety of those in its environment as well.

As is the case with any machine, it’s best for certain applications, and when it comes to gear manufacturing, these technologies will be most appealing to high-production operations sending out large-lot shipments to customers. But these machines are evolving so quickly that new features are announced every few months. One of the biggest advantages of this collaborative technology may well be the bridge it provides for workers to grow comfortable with the notion of robots sharing their workspace, and also to begin thinking about this curious and intriguing relationship. Rather than simply harnessing their power, working in conjunction with robots may be the perfect marriage of mind and metal.


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