Inside the Human-Robot Collaboration Trend

March 26, 2015
Specific demands from a range of manufacturing industries are driving the rapid development of cage-free robots that can work alongside or in close proximity to humans. Here’s a look at some of the latest developments.

Not long ago the concept may have seemed to be many years away from reality, but it now appears that we’ve reached the tipping point in human-robot collaboration. Though the days of industrial robots operating in protected areas are by no means over, the days of robots working side-by-side with human are a growing reality.

At the ProMat/Automate 2015 event this week in Chicago, I saw more evidence of this trend in one place than I have ever seen previously. The most prominent examples of this at the show were: Universal Robots, with its UR10, UR5 and newly introduced UR3 robots; Rethink Robotics with its Baxter robot; and Mitsubishi Electric Automation with its demonstration of collaborative industrial robot systems with system integration partner Aspect Automation.

Universal Robots’ presence at the event was not only evident by its large booth space, but the appearance of the company’s robots in other show locations, such as in the Robotiq and Empire Robotics booths.

Though all three of Universal Robots products are designed to work alongside humans in assembly operations, the company’s newest release—the UR3—is designed for even more direct human-robot collaboration due to its size and table-top mounting format. The UR3 weighs 24.3 lbs., has a payload of 6.6 lbs., 360-degree rotation on all wrist joints and infinite rotation on the end joint. According to the company, these features make the UR3 the most flexible, lightweight, table-top robot to work side-by-side with humans currently available.

Such claims to Universal Robots unique spot in the market are not unfamiliar to Esben Oestergaard, the company’s chief technology officer and co-founder. He said the company currently has some 4,000 robots deployed in “collaborative applications with humans, which is more than all our competition combined.”

Applications for the UR3 are said to span manufacturing and assembly industries from medical devices to circuit boards and electronic components. According to Oestergaard, the robot can pick up screws, mount, and tighten them applying the correct torque. In gluing applications, UR3 can dose exactly the same amount of glue with constant and steady pressure along a narrowly defined path.

Beyond the ability of Universal Robots to work alongside humans, Oestergaard points to the company’s graphical user interface for robot programming as being another key differentiator in the company’s momentum to date. I have to admit that it is extremely intuitive—you can see evidence of this in the video where, with minimal guidance from Oestergaard, I was able to program multiple waypoints on a UR5 robot in just a few minutes. After my experience, a new marketing tag for Universal Robots could be that their robots are so easy to program even an editor can do it.

Possibly the most well-known player in the human-robot collaboration field today is Rethink Robotics, which is widely recognized for its Baxter robot. While speaking with Jim Lawton of Rethink Robotics, he pointed out that the rise in human-robot collaboration is stemming from several factors, most notably:

  • “Ninety percent of tasks in manufacturing have not been automated because it’s not been practical to do so” with standard industrial robotics technology, he said, citing a recent Boston Consulting Group study.
  • Most small to mid-sized manufacturers are out of the robotics loop because they often lack industrial robot programming knowledge.
  • Plus, these smaller manufacturers typically perform widely varying job shop production and therefore need robots to be very flexible—something most industrial robots do not lend themselves to easily. “Robots need to accommodate a production environment that’s not precise,” said Lawton. “Baxter and Sawyer (Rethink Robotics recently introduced one-armed robot) are designed for semi-structured environments where changes are often made.” (see video)

Lawton said that as recently as two years ago collaborative robotics were largely dismissed by the industry. However, by 2014 there had “been a turnaround” in its status as more than an intellectual curiosity. “It (collaborative robotics) will soon be in every manufacturing facility,” he said. “Manufacturers won’t be able to afford to operate without it.”

In pointing out that “collaborative equals safe equals not in cage,” Lawton highlighted the direction that even some larger industrial robot suppliers are headed toward—a direction I saw on display at Mitsubishi Electric Automation’s booth. In this exhibit, Mitsubishi Electric Automation (MEA) showcased work with its partner Aspect Automation to illustrate how the combination of MEA’s safety controller, coupled with laser scanners, can create safe zones around industrial robots to allow humans to work near industrial robots without requiring the use of protective cages.

Mitsubishi’s David Kaley explained that large businesses in the electronic assembly industry are demanding this kind of human-robot collaboration capability for high-speed materials handling and parts-picking operations, and that such requests are driving Mitsubishi’s system development in this area.

“Most robots designed for human collaboration are not fast enough to be used in high-speed material handling applications,” Kaley said. “But with this technology combination, humans can work closely with any type of robot.” He did note that this type of robot-human collaboration technology was not meant for extremely close, hand-in-hand human/robot collaboration, but for work with robots “in very close proximity without the need for cages.”

The system on display at the Mitsubishi booth featured a Mitsubishi pick-and-place robot (RV-4FL) connected to Mitsubishi’s new safety controller (4F-SF001-01) and third-party laser scanners to create two levels of safe operation zones. In the “yellow” zone—covering 360 degrees around the robot at a distance of about 5 feet, any movement in this area causes the robot to slow down to a very low speed but continue working. Anything crossing into the “red” zone, within about 3 feet from the robot, causes it to cease operation completely. Any manipulation or nudge of the robot arm at this point acts like an e-stop. If the e-stop is not triggered, once the human moves outside the red and yellow zones, operation automatically returns to the pre-set speed.

Camren Blank of Aspect Automation explained that this system uses redundant system monitoring channels, per OSHA requirements, using the safety controller to control the laser scanner sensor and the robot.

When asked about deployments beyond the electronic assembly applications that initially sparked development of this system for Mitsubishi, Blank noted that they are in discussions with CNC shops and laboratories about deploying this technology.

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