Collaboration in the Workplace: How a New Generation of Cobots Is Improving the Nature of Manual Work
Automation technology can make work less dangerous, strenuous, and tedious—but it calls for sensitive implementation and a commitment to reskilling. This article will share insights from Nicola O’Byrne, ADI’s global ambassador for robotics.
Before the start of this decade, various forces were already combining to widen the adoption of robotics technology. Robots were being installed in greater numbers, chiefly in factories, but also more widely in scientific laboratories, warehouses, and logistics facilities—and even in such traditionally labor-intensive domains as horticulture.
Then in March 2020, those forces were suddenly redoubled with the onset of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. The new normal of the coronavirus crisis has imposed the need for social distancing in workplaces, boosted the volume of e-commerce transactions and the demand for fulfilment services, and shown industry that its far-flung, globalized supply chains are surprisingly fragile. And robotics has an important part to play in industry’s response to these coronavirus-induced phenomena.
Innovations in the technology of robotics systems have made them quicker and easier to implement than ever before. As the technical challenges involved in robotics become easier to solve, the spotlight is shifting to people and processes. Robotics technology can lead to profound changes to patterns of staff deployment, to the requirement for skills and training, and even to organizational culture and to society at large, and these changes deserve careful attention from organizations and public bodies.
High Level Guidance for Companies Implementing Robotics Programs
To help guide industry through this change, Analog Devices has made Nicola O’Byrne its global ambassador for robotics. O’Byrne is an engineer with years of experience in developing components and technology for robotics systems such as motors, SLAM modules, and safety event detection.
Now, she advises ADI’s customers, and its customers’ customers, on the wider issues involved in the introduction or extension of robotics. This higher level view is more important than ever, she says, because the coronavirus pandemic is driving companies to adopt robotics technology faster than before. And if they take account of the issues that O’Byrne is raising, they can ensure that their deployments are not only quick, but also effective, and good for the company and the communities it operates in.
“We know from real-world experience that robots are huge productivity enhancers on the factory production line,” she says. “The classic uses of robots involve the deployment of large, expensive machines, which take weeks to install, commission, and program.“
“Since the coronavirus pandemic took hold, we have been seeing growing interest in the deployment of new types of robots, including collaborative robots, known as cobots. Absence because of illness or self-isolation makes it harder to plan work rosters, and the need for social distancing in the workplace means that in some settings, employers simply cannot accommodate their usual complement of workers. Robots or cobots offer the potential to take up the slack.”
The pandemic has also put pressure on global supply chains that were already feeling the strain of U.S.-China trade tensions and Brexit. One common response is to reshore production, so that products are manufactured closer to the point of purchase or use.
Again, robots play an important role. As O’Byrne says, “Reshoring can be good for business continuity and resilience, but manufacturers producing in western Europe or North America do not have access to low cost labor in the same way that they do in China or other Asian nations. Robots solve the workforce problem. They also provide the additional benefit of enabling a more modular and flexible approach to production operations, to support moves towards mass customization.”
New Roles for New Types of Robots
According to O’Byrne, this new wave of automation is not just about more of the same: innovative organizations are finding new ways to automate which require new kinds of robots—and new skills in their human operators. She says, “One of the biggest new developments is in the design and deployment of cobots. The role of cobots is to take away the grind and strain involved in much manual labor. They can do the tedious, effortful, or dangerous tasks such as polishing, milling, drilling, or cutting, under the guidance of a human operator.” Studies have shown that safety at work is enhanced while working with cobots.1
The operation of cobots alongside a human operator means that the power they use and the space they occupy must be much more limited than for a conventional standalone robot. This means that they must be aware of their environment, so that they slow down or stop when they detect a person close to a moving part such as a tool or the arm of the cobot.
Cobot manufacturers are also finding new ways to enable faster and easier commissioning and programming. O’Byrne says, “Cobot manufacturers have introduced a highly abstracted approach to programming. In many cases, the user does not need to write a single line of code—the operations of the cobot can be configured via a tablet-style console. Then the operator can perform guided programming, positioning the cobot arm in a sequence of points in space, and pressing a button on the console to store the sequence in the cobot’s memory.”
“One of the biggest new developments is in the design and deployment of cobots. The role of cobots is to take away the grind and strain involved in much manual labor. They can do the tedious, effortful, or dangerous tasks such as polishing, milling, drilling, or cutting under the guidance of a human operator.”
ADI Strategic Marketing Manager for Connected Motion and Robotics | Analog Devices
Smaller, cheaper cobots that are quicker and easier to deploy: this is industry’s vision for the wider adoption of robotics. The combination of a cobot and human can achieve much greater output more safely than humans on their own. This is giving rise to exciting opportunities to reimagine work and the workplace. What we are used to thinking of as manual work could be transformed, eliminating physical strain, tedium, and danger, as well as the scope for human error, and freeing workers to perform more stimulating work that makes better use of their cognitive abilities.
But O’Byrne insists that this transformation needs careful management if industry is to retain the consent of the communities that it works in. She says, “Today, people are fearful that robots will replace people, particularly the least qualified and lowest paid sections of society. While I understand the fear, I think it’s misplaced. In fact, the introduction of robots takes tasks away from humans, but not jobs. People have to do what the cobots cannot do: manage the process, use creativity to refine or reinvent it, and build the team that works with the cobots. These are functions that require humanity, not machinery.”
And O’Byrne says that those who are already employed to perform a task are often the best people to configure, operate, and manage the cobot. She says, “In a factory, it’s the people on the shopfloor who have the most intimate knowledge of the process, so they know best how to integrate cobots into it. Of course, this change in their role requires some additional skills and knowledge, but organizations can bring their staff and the wider community with them if they support that transition with generous programs for training and reorganization. I think public bodies can usefully play a role here too, for instance, to extend the provision of vocational robotics courses for graduates to enhance their value to a first employer.”
A win-win outcome from the adoption of new robotics technologies is possible, but the lesson from experts such as ADI’s Nicola O’Byrne is clear. As she says, “Technology is at the heart of successful implementations of robotics, but take care of the people and the process as well if you want to enjoy the full benefits that the new generation of robots have to offer.”