Written by Radu Cirligeanu on 11 March 2021.
Have you ever watched sci-fi films in which humans are surrounded by robots, and the robots are so human-like that it becomes difficult to say which one is which? I think we all did, at some point. We watched and wondered if this was really possible in the future or if it was only the stream of the imagination of a gifted person. It would be extremely difficult to draw a line between what is and what is not possible in the next ten to twenty years from a robotics’ perspective. Instead, we can show what is possible today and try to explain why nowadays robots look so different from the ones we are all used to seeing in the cinema productions.
How would you define a robot?
According to britannica.com, a robot is “any automatically operated machine that replaces human effort, though it may not resemble human beings in appearance or perform functions in a humanlike manner.” As such, a robot is a device that can replace a human in performing a certain task or it can enhance the human in performing that task.
From this perspective, we can conclude that we are already surrounded by robots in our day-to-day life. Nevertheless, our daily activity is not that demanding, neither physically nor emotionally. Having a robot that can help us deal with our daily routine is more of a luxury today. We can have a smart vacuum cleaner that does the job for us around the house or a smart coffee machine that prepares the coffee just before our alarm goes off in the morning. But the real added value of a robot is in that sort of activities that are really not suited for a human to perform.
Which industrial tasks should you delegate to the robot?
Imagine a worker in a factory assembling hundreds of thousands of devices a day; this might be fun to watch and to perform for several minutes, but it quickly becomes boring and unsatisfying. There are also workers that need to work in dangerous environments, close to intense sources of heat, in irradiated areas, in very noisy environments, in regions with smoke and other toxic gases or particles, etc. Other workers need to lift heavy weights or to withstand high levels of vibrations for long periods of time. So, you see, these types of activities are more in need of robotic help than we might be in our daily life.
A robot does not mind if it is required to perform the same operation 1000 times a day. Also, it doesn’t mind if its working environment is smoky or too warm or too cold, as long as its operation is not impeded by these conditions. A robot does not need coffee breaks, it does not need to chat with colleagues, it doesn’t need a lunch break and it definitely doesn’t mind if it is requested to spend some extra time at work if required to do so. If on top of this, you consider the fact that a robot does not have to be paid for the work, then you obtain the (almost) perfect definition of a worker for difficult environments.
Can you fully replace humans with robots at work?
And, at this point, we can ask ourselves: why not completely replacing the humans in all these difficult working conditions with robots? This is not an easy question to answer. Today, the technology is sufficiently advanced to allow us to fully automate certain tasks – this is already the case. For other tasks, the complexity of the robot would be so high that the effort required to develop it made it non-commercially competitive.
Finally, there are some other tasks that cannot be fully automated, either because of their complexity or simply because the presence of a human is absolutely required (as an example, imagine a robot performing a medical intervention on you, without the supervision of a human medic – would you feel comfortable as a patient?). Therefore, there are many situations in which a task would benefit from the presence of a robot, but the robot needs to work in collaboration with a human. These types of robots are generally termed collaborative robots or cobots.
How can CoLLaboratE project сontribute to effective human-robot collaboration?
The CoLLaboratE project is developing collaborative robotic systems for assembly applications – i.e. those types of industrial applications in which the humans really need help but in which a fully autonomous robot would be very complex, expensive or even too advanced for today’s technology.
These robots are meant to partially substitute the presence of humans for a given task. This comes with a certain advantage, as a human person will always be there to guide it. As these robots need to work in close collaborations with humans, extra degrees of complexity are introduced, as communication and safety of operation. As such, it is somehow misleading to consider a collaborative robot simpler than a fully autonomous one. It is just a different type of robot, more appropriate for certain types of applications.
The applications that are targeted by the CoLLaboratE project are all related to the repetitive work (translated into an increase in productivity), a reduction in the physical load endured by the human workers (translated into better work conditions) or a combination of the two (with both types of advantages – higher productivity and better work conditions).
Let us focus on one example of cobot application investigated in the CoLLaboratE project: the riveting of an aeronautical structure. As currently performed, this process involves two human operators working together. Just to make it simple, one can see this process as consisting in fixing together two pieces of metal by joining them with a third, metallic piece called a rivet. The rivet is deformed to the point where it doesn’t allow relative movement between the two pieces of metal.
A high level of energy is involved in the riveting process, in the form of high-frequency mechanical shocks. Part of this energy is transferred to the rivet, which plastically deforms, and part of it is absorbed by a handheld piece of metal (called bucking bar). Both the worker holding the riveting gun (which generates the shocks) and the one holding the bucking bar (which absorbs the shocks) are exposed to high levels of vibrations.
On top of that, the worker holding the bucking bar needs to take some very uncomfortable positions to reach difficult to access regions. For this particular worker, each rivet represents a challenge. And now multiply this by around 500 to have an idea of the number of challenges per day of work this worker has to take.
So, why not replace this worker with a robot? The robot would work in collaboration with the other human operator, would perform the riveting faster, the quality could be better and, what is quite amazing, after performing 500 rivets, it is not tired. It can start a new round of 500 rivets as soon as the 8h shift changes.
You see, in the current case, two human workers perform 500 rivets in 8h. In the semi-automated case, one human worker + one cobot perform 500 rivets in 8h and another human worker + the same cobot perform another 500 rivets in the next 8h. Therefore, the introduction of the cobot allowed doubling productivity with the same number of workers. In addition, each worker feels more comfortable as, in general, the level of vibration felt by the worker holding the riveting gun is lower than the vibration felt by the worker holding the bucking bar.
How can cobots improve human workers’ life?
When it comes to industrial applications, the health of the human workers is a concept that should not be equated with productivity, cost, time of the process, required resources or other economic indicators. Health comes first, everything else has lower priority. Intelligent cobots represent a favourable approach as they allow a simultaneous improvement in workers’ health and wellbeing, an increase in productivity and a potential reduction in the cost and time of the assembly process.
One general perception among the industrial workers is that at some point, the robots will completely replace them, thus “stealing” their jobs. In a COVID-19 affected society, losing a job is the last thing you would aim for. So, how justified this perception really is? The answer to this question has multiple aspects. First, it is important to understand that the introduction of a robot (either fully automated or collaborative) in an industrial process is not targeted at replacing the human worker(s), but at improving the process. If the process is better without the human in the loop, well, why being against it?
Fighting progress should not be a characteristic of the modern world. Second, let us assume a human worker is replaced by a cobot in a difficult job. The downside is that he (or she) loses his job. The upside is that his health is not in danger anymore. A new job can always be identified but restoring one’s health is not guaranteed and for sure it’s not a trivial endeavour. Third, if a human worker is replaced by a cobot in a difficult job (either repetitive or physically demanding job) it simply means that the robot is better suited for this particular job. The human being replaced can dedicate time to increasing his set of skills so that he can apply these new skills in a new job, in which a robot cannot outperform him. This “new” job can still be in the same company.
The “weapons” of a human against a robot should be intelligence, adaptability, empathy, etc. as opposed to endurance, efficiency, speed, accuracy, which are characteristics of excellence for a robot. People can evolve by themselves; robots need people to become better, they cannot do it by themselves. However, even though people are capable of evolving, they need a driver to do so. They need a serious reason to challenge what they can do today so that tomorrow they can do more and better. Evolution is a process that occurs as a response to risk or challenge. In this case, cobots might force humans to evolve.
The CoLLaboratE project is developing a new class of cobots, intelligent collaborative robots that can deal with complex situations ensuring a high degree of safety and quality. These cobots have the potential to improve human workers’ life by taking over those repetitive and demanding tasks and by supplying real help which can ultimately lead to better productivity and cost-efficiency. This is a genuine improvement and should not be seen as a job-threatening process.
As a summary, the main ideas to retain from this article are:
- Contrary to what most of us believe, robots are not entities that we expect to see in a distant or not-so-distant future. As we speak, they are present in our daily life and they will continue to be present as they are meant to make our lives better.
- Robots are more appropriate for industrial processes in which human workers are subjected to difficult tasks, like repetitive and/or physically demanding actions.
- There are many industrial applications in which collaboration between human and the machine is much better than a full automatization of the process.
- One should not be reluctant to implement cobots in the certain industrial process; they are very well equipped to handle difficult jobs, jobs that are, most of the time, not well suited for human workers.
- A worker that feels threatened by a cobot (or robot, in general) should ask himself why he would like to compete with a robot instead of increasing his skills in a direction that cannot be matched by a robot that will result in a different job with better working conditions.
- The CoLLaboratE project is developing collaborative systems meant to improve people’s lives and not to threaten their jobs.
So, I hope you now have a better picture of what a cobot is and does. Cobots are not here to steal anybody’s job. They can take over the jobs we want to (and we should) get rid of. And we can definitely profit from finding them a place in our activities because the only purpose of their existence is to make our life easier.