Robots and Humans Interact Safely

Dec. 11, 2007
Current trends in robotics will enable better human-robot interaction, making robots easier and safer to use.
Joe Kraus, product manager with Kuka Robotics Corp. (www.kuka.com), Clinton Township, Mich., mentions three trends. First, there is the growth of industry-specific and application-based robotic arms and software. He believes these will allow quicker automation implementation and greater ease of use. He forecasts automotive as the biggest initial end-user of those developments.  Another trend is high-payload, six-axis robots that will let those automotive manufacturers use a single robot in certain material handling and other applications, such as glass handling, body-in-white and construction. These trends reflect the movement away from one-size-fits-all use of robotics approaches, Kraus thinks. That’s because each industry sector now has a different level of robotic acceptance and sophistication, as well as differing needs, he says. “This [trend] is possible because specialized robots are variations on standard and proven robotic systems.” The next big step in robotics will come through their interaction with humans, Kraus suggests. “The closer that the two can work together safely, the greater the potential for both.” He expects that greater optimization of software and hardware will make the human-robot interface safer. Embedding robotics To Dan Throne, one of the biggest trend began one to two years ago when companies, particularly those in food and packaging, began understanding the value of integrating motion control and embedded robotics in non-proprietary control platforms. “This happened by an evolutionary process,” recalls Throne, manager in the Food& Packaging group in the Electric Drives Division of Bosch Rexroth Corp. (www.boschrexroth-us.com), Hoffman Estates, Ill.  Until recently, the robotics industry has had to rely on specialized, dedicated robotics controllers, he says. “What I mean is that robot manufacturers developed proprietary controllers for just their own robots.” But on the users’ end, industry tired of having those different specialized control platforms and their proprietary languages, Throne comments. “Companies were looking to support machines that come into their facilities.” But that didn’t mean using programmable logic controllers on some machines, personal computers on others and specialized robotics controllers on even others. Nor did it mean that end-users wanted the challenge of having to train staff to support the various proprietary control platforms, he adds.  With the advent of embedding robotics capabilities into standard controllers, however, using the language in the International Electrotechnical Commission’s (www.iec.ch) standard 61131-Programmable Controllers, things changed and continue to do so, Throne says. “End-users don’t need specialized training, because IEC 61131 applies to high-speed robotics.”  Through OMAC—the Open, Modular Architecture Control Users Group, (www.omac.org)—industry published a set of standard guidelines for use in food and packaging, he notes. Part of the guidelines included IEC 61131. That allows original equipment manufacturers, or OEMs, to use the same controller to program robots as they do to program wrappers, cartoners and palletizers, Throne explains. “For example, I can take an off-the-shelf controller and tailor it to my needs. I’m already familiar with that controller, since I’ve used it for those other needs.”  And that standardized-platform capability also means some high-performance controllers now use 1-gigahertz processors and can handle 64 motors on one platform, as opposed to older technology that can only handle eight to 10 axes, he explains. More Ethernet-based architectures are also available, Throne adds.  Perhaps, though, one of the most significant trends now entails robots and flexible automation becoming increasingly accepted within manufacturing, Kraus observes. “People see robots and have a sense that they can do more than they currently are.” That’s got to improve human-robot relationships.  C. Kenna Amos, [email protected], is an Automation World Contributing Editor.

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