Cobots are coming: When mech, man and manufacturing combine
Wednesday, May 30, 2018
While humans are capable of astonishing endurance and precision, repetitive motion tasks are bad news for manufacturing: they aren't just physically harmful over time, they can lead to worker burnout.
When productivity is the main focus of most industries today, what's a large company with large needs to do when faced with human limitations?
Hiring more workers is a huge drain on finances, but going fully automated isn't likely to win any favors with the workforce, and by extension, the public.
The solution? Cobots, or collaborative robots.
What Are Cobots?
While they've been around in one form or another since the dawn of robotics, true cobots are robots that are purpose-built and field-tested to perform as reliably as their human counterparts — with one important difference.
Rather than advanced technology designed to replace humans, they're made to work with and alongside their flesh-and-blood coworkers, reducing strain of both the mental and physical variety.
Instead of relying on a pair of human eyes to scan, for example, a conveyor belt full of components to spot damages, a cobot can be armed with visual guidance software that can complete the task in a fraction of the time. This leaves the cobot's human co-worker the freedom to complete human intelligence-requiring tasks, thus increasing overall efficiency.
What's the Holdup on Full Cobot Adoption?
Much like any industrial place where man and machine intersect, it's complicated. The primary concerns are ethics and safety, and those aren't small hurdles to overcome by any stretch of the imagination.
Safety comes into play when trying to balance the superior speed, longevity and precision of cobots with potential threats to their human handlers.
For example, if a human collapses or drops an item, they aren't typically moving at high speed with hydraulics behind them: the wrong accident at the wrong speed can end up as a deadly accident. Likewise, if a limb, hair, or a piece of clothing becomes tangled in a piece of industrial equipment, workers may be literally putting their life in robotic hands — or lack thereof — by depending on a cobot to assess and address a looming emergency by cutting power.
Robots and cobots are, after all, a product of their programming, and scenarios like these are putting a lot of faith in programmers' ability to encode every emergency situation before it has a chance to happen.
In terms of ethics, the issue is twofold: cobots may be taking jobs that humans either are or could be doing, and their human counterparts may face reductions in pay rates or hours of availability once cobots begin taking over repetitive or menial tasks.
Though they are intended for coworking with humans, it's not hard to imagine the tension they bring to a competitive employment market. In all likelihood, even though they're typically nothing more than a collection of metal, silicone and wires, cobots will invite the same uneasiness in certain situations that an overambitious co-worker driving to take over your job might inspire.
These concerns aren't slowing down the gradual spread of cobots, however: at it's core, they're fed by a design market buoyed by the encroaching demand for personal assistance robots in the private sector.
It's an industry that's projected to be worth 10 billion dollars in only a decade, which is the kind of exponential growth its adopters can only dream about for their own products. While the proverbial bugs are being ironed out, cobots have most industry experts cautiously optimistic about the possibilities.
Only time will tell, however, if cobots will ultimately get a warm welcome or a cold shoulder from their carbon-based counterparts.
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