From robots to ‘cobots’

Robots smart enough to collaborate with people

Industrial robotics is a real revolution today. Robots, thanks to vision systems and artificial intelligence, are becoming smarter and able to truly collaborate with people. They have become cobots – good for employers, who can cope with staffing shortages, and good for employees, who are freed up to do more varied and challenging tasks.

Industrial robots are not new. Since the Seventies, the third industrial revolution has been underway, and hydraulic robots have been succeeded by electric robots. But in recent years, industrial robotics has really gained momentum.

Thanks to the third industrial revolution, robots have been further optimised. The manipulator – the moving part – and the controller – the software and the electronics that control the equipment – have been subject to continuous improvement. Robots have gained an ever-increasing range, and have been able to lift increasingly heavier weight. But up until now, they were limited to repetitive, pre-programmed tasks.

Smarter and cheaper robots

All that is changing now. The latest camera technology is very close to the human eye. Robot systems can recognise, select and capture objects. Thanks to developments in robotic controls and smarter software algorithms, robots have the ability to adjust themselves using information coming from sensors and cameras.

Robots use machine learning algorithms to define their own path. Their own experiences together with data from other robots exchanged via the cloud, make robots faster and increasingly smarter. In this way, in the future they will not only be able to work more accurately, but will also be able to handle a greater volume and variety of varied tasks.

The combination of robot technology, sensors and cameras, artificial intelligence and big data ensures that robots can take on a greater volume of increasingly complex tasks. No longer are they limited to a fixed, pre-programmed series of tasks. For example, robots can be used to create a wider range of products. Moreover, robots are not only becoming smarter, robot applications are also getting cheaper. We can market individualised products at the cost price of mass production -and that’s not something any consumer will be sorry about.

Will robots do away with our jobs?

What does this evolution mean for humankind? Are we finally losing the race against robots? Are they going to do away with our jobs? The answer is: no. On the contrary. Previous generations of robots were not designed to work with humans. We had to hide them behind solid cages in order to work safely. Today’s industrial robots – and certainly those of the future – will help us to work in a safer, more efficient and more ergonomic way. Becoming cobots.

Yes, robots will take over an increasing number of tasks from us. But first and foremost, these will be physically demanding and/or repetitive tasks. At the ABB production site in Ede, we are pioneering with an assembly line where 3 YuMi cobots work together to assemble hollow wall boxes.

Until recently, this was done by people, but it was terribly monotonous work. An injection moulding machine creates the shape of the boxes, then the robots quickly add the necessary tabs and screws. Many companies are on the look-out for suitable personnel – this is where robotic technology can help solve scarcity.

Not competitors, but colleagues

People are still needed to program, adjust and maintain the robots. Moreover, it is currently not economically feasible to automate all existing production tasks. This makes workplace activities more varied, challenging and safer. Thanks to the Internet of Things, we have a much better understanding of when a robot needs maintenance or when something goes wrong. In turn, the robots are smart enough to turn themselves off when people get too close. That means we can free them from their safety cages.

Our highly-trained engineers already use 3D virtualisation so that programming robots is faster and easier. This gives them additional time and space to design solutions for new challenges. And to guarantee that ABB can stay ahead of the game.

Even for less skilled workers virtual reality and augmented reality are gifts from heaven. By applying AR and VR technology, they can also perform more complex and more varied tasks. They no longer work alongside the robots, they really work together with the robots. They are not competitors, they are colleagues.

Categories and Tags
About the author

Staf Seurinck

Staf Seurinck is Vice President of Robotics and Motion Benelux. Responsible for managing team robotics and drive technology, ambassador Smart Industry, management sponsor Food & Beverage and Marine & Ports segment initiatives in the Benelux. With ABB since 1995.
Comment this article