i3 - May/June 2020 - 24

"We're now seeing technology that
allows traditional industrial robots to
work side-by-side with people without fences between them," says Jeff
Burnstein of the Robotic Industries
Association. He cites, assistive
devices like exoskeletons as an
emerging sector of the cobot world
that work with a human on tasks
such as lifting heavy objects or in
the consumer health applications
that help people stand and walk.
Burnstein points to warehouses
where, "We're already seeing people
monitor a fleet of robots rather than
walking miles each day tugging
heavy loads. This allows us to get
our products faster, enabling companies to hire more people to meet
the demand of e-commerce, even
as companies adopt more robots."
Cobots are being deployed in
fields such as aeronautics, pharmaceuticals, food and beverage processing, machine and automotive
manufacturing and agriculture. They
are used to enhance the traditional
role of robots which has been assigned to the "four D's" of industrial
tasks: Dangerous, Dirty, Dull (or Demeaning) and Dear (i.e. expensive),
as a recent Forbes article explained.
Cobots provide super strength,
precision and data processing and
can learn from their collaborators
new ways to handle processes. For
example, in automaking or vehicle
repair, cobots can learn from human
touch how to control the force of
hand-sanding the paintwork of a car
unlike the pre-programmed pressure of a robot sander.
Smart Robots, an Italian firm that
makes industrial robots, stresses the
values of robot/human cooperation
as smart co-workers. "The human
operator accomplishes crucial
high value-added activities" when
working with cobots, which means
the person can learn the process
about 50% faster, the company
explains, while the collaborating
robot "performs repetitive and less
ergonomic tasks" that might distract
the human. Smart Robots, launched
24

MAY/JUNE 2020

i3_0520_22-25_Feature_Cobots.indd 24

in 2016, has found that the cobot
process generates a 40% to 100%
productivity improvement, 90%
reduction of human errors (a steep
cost reduction by eliminating waste
and re-work) and creates higher
quality "thanks to robots' repeatability" and lower operator risks in
"ergonomically harmful tasks."
FANUC America, a 50-year-old
industrial robot manufacturer, demonstrated its new cobot capabilities
at CES 2020, focusing on its 3D
vision camera and voice activated
features that engage the human/
machine manufacturing relationship. FANUC's built-in sensors allow
cobots to work alongside humans
without expensive guarding barriers that can affect procedures.
Intelligence in
the cobots can
detect colors
and shapes
at very high
speeds, helping
in production,
distribution and
packaging tasks
such as picking
and sorting pills
or odd-form
electronic components.
Experts see
the flexibility
of cobots for
learning how to
handle delicate
items (such
as packaging)
and detecting
and identifying
new products
quickly (via
vision sensors).
The features
will be useful
in retail stores
where a human
clerk could
use a cobot
for inventory
retrieval and
presentations.

should be optimized to learn from humans on how
to process unexpected encounters.
"Social robots should be able to handle situations
'outside the rules' of what they are programmed to
do," Veloso explains. This makes them more flexible
"to identify and be alert" for new social situations
and conditions. She also envisions social robots who
are attentive to specific conditions when used as
health care companions, which will require lots of
cognitive and physical help. "The cobots will know
when a human needs actual physical
assistance," Veloso predicts.
Top: Concept cobot
Matt Beane, assistant professor of techtech in a smart facnology
management at the University of
tory. Middle: ItalyCalifornia, Santa Barbara, sees a future in
based Smart
Robots manufacwhich "experts, apprentices and intellitures robots
gent machines work, and learn, together."
focused on human
In a Harvard Business Review article,
cooperation.
Bottom: FANUC
"Learning to Work with Intelligent
America manufacMachines," Beane examined cobot opportures robots for
tunities ranging from surgical operating
industrial
applications.
rooms to police forces, investment banks
and online education. Beane, who is also
a research affiliate with MIT's Initiative
on the Digital Economy, concluded that
in the human/robot relationship,
machines with AI features will learn how
to do things in the same way new employees, interns and trainees have done for
millennia: through an informal process
he calls "shadow learning." Beane says,
"On the hardware side, augmented reality systems are beginning to bring expert
instruction and annotation into the flow
of work," citing "smart glasses to overlay
instructions on work in real time."
In particular, cobots as well as the
humans who work with them, should
have opportunities to collaborate and
understand the skills and capabilities of
each other for each task. Beane advises
that it will be necessary to restructure
roles and incentives to help learners master new ways of working with intelligent
machines. Organizations also will have to
build searchable, annotated, crowdsourced "skill repositories" containing
tools and expert guidance that learners
can tap and contribute to as needed.

ACCELERATING ACCEPTANCE

The outlook for both industrial and social
cobots is enormous. The market for cobot
arms alone is expected to muscle up from
about $2 billion now to $11 billion by the

Clockwise from Top Right: Courtesy of Pillo Health, Bloomberg via Getty Images, Antonello Marangi/Alamy Stock Photo, Westend61/Getty Images, Courtesy of Smart Robots, Jiraroj Praditcharoenkul/Alamy Stock Photo

INDUSTRIAL
COBOTS ON THE JOB

I T I S I N N O VAT I O N

5/7/20 3:41 PM



i3 - May/June 2020

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