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The idea of highly interactive robots has existed for quite some time in fictional form, but only in recent years have they become a reality in our everyday lives. Likely to date myself, I am reminded of the super-helpful and friendly cobot, Rosie, who was an integral part of the television cartoon family, The Jetsons, or the more serious and scholarly collaborative robot seen on the TV show, Lost in Space, who was unimaginatively named Robot.
In real life, rudimentary collaborative robots have begun to find their way into our homes to assist with house cleaning and yard work. And now, robot pets are being used in nursing homes and senior centers to alleviate feelings of loneliness and also function as service animals or therapeutic assistants for those in need of a faithful companion. New uses for collaborative robots are being explored every day, so we will undoubtedly see an increase in new applications for their use in the very near future.
Collaborative Robot Use in Industry
Collaborative robots suited for industrial use began to transition from concepts on paper to real-world applications in the early 1990s. Academia and industry began to develop robotic devices to operate outside of machine safeguarding barriers to which robots at that time were relegated. General Motors gained notoriety during this period for their Intelligent Assist Device (IAD) development efforts. Designed to help workers lift and position heavy payloads, IADs were shown to improve productivity, reduce repetitive injuries, and boost worker morale. Since this time, many companies and robot manufacturers have found additional ways for industrial robots to safely work alongside their human counterparts.
So, what makes a robot collaborative? Unlike a conventional industrial robot, a collaborative robot, also known as a “cobot” is designed to safely and productively co-exist and interact with humans in overlapping workspaces. The capacity for this interaction is also known as Human-Robot Collaboration or Human-Robot Interaction.
A traditional industrial robot—be it a SCARA, Cartesian robot, six-axis robot, or another type— operates completely unaware of its surroundings. Its singular focus is on the task for which it has been programmed to perform. Humans risk potential injury if allowed to enter the robot’s work cell without first taking the necessary steps to completely stop the robot’s motion and ensure it is in a safe state.
Evolutions in sensor technology, software, safety, and robot-control systems now enable collaborative robots to take their place on the factory floor and physically interact with workers, without the precautions and safeguards that prevented earlier robots from operating in open work environments. A collaborative robot is designed and programmed to have greater awareness, sensitivity, and responsiveness to its surroundings. Its movements can be aligned with the movements of humans working concurrently in a shared workspace, with the potential for direct contact without the protective devices and guarding required for traditional robots.
Collaboration between a robot and humans occupying a shared space can be achieved by carefully maintaining minimum safe distances between the two at all times and applying limits to the speed, power, and force-generating capabilities of the cobot. The degree to which a cobot actually comes in direct contact with humans is determined by the safety configurations applied to the collaborative robot. A cobot that employs power and force-limiting capabilities comes closest to the true definition of a collaborative robot capable of operating completely unconstrained. Collaborative robots are also designed to not have pinch points, sharp edges, or appendages that might cause injury to a human coming into direct contact with the robot. These design advancements differentiate collaborative robots from traditional robots, and have alleviated the initial fears that led many to believe that collaborative robots would not be widely accepted for industrial use.
In December 2016, the Robotics Industries Association (RIA) introduced TR R15.606-2016 which provides safety guidelines for the use of cobots in the workplace. To meet these guidelines, hazard identification and a risk assessment must be performed prior to the commissioning of a collaborative robot. The robot integrator must comply with existing safety standards, such as ANSI/RIA R15.06-2012, to ensure the safety of those working in close proximity to collaborative robots. Safety measures and devices are also required if unauthorized individuals unfamiliar with the robot’s movements must engage with the robot.
The Future Outlook for Collaborative Robot Use
Since legitimate safety concerns have been identified and addressed, the collaborative robot market is expected to experience fast-paced growth to the tune of over $4 billion in sales by 2023. A continuing reduction in price is another factor contributing to the rise in cobot deployments. Integration costs are lower, given the simplification of installing, commissioning, and programming a cobot. The elimination of guarding and the ability to locate cobots in closer proximity to surrounding workers allow for maximum use of valuable floor space. Other benefits, including ease of use, precision, flexibility, and versatility, are also contributing to the increased use of collaborative robots in the workplace.
Similar to their industrial robot counterparts, collaborative robots are most useful performing tasks involving repetition, precision, danger, and heavy lifting. This allows human coworkers to focus their efforts on more complex tasks, and largely avoid injuries due to repetitive motion and overexertion. A work environment that can seamlessly integrate robot and worker interactions will no doubt lead to greater efficiencies and collaborative robots will play a significant role in the factory of the future. With the advent of the collaborative robot, it is easy to envision humans and cobots working side by side in pursuit of shared goals and objectives. How proud Rosie and Robot must be of the incredible value that real-life cobots now provide.