Hand in Gripper: Safer, More Collaborative Robots Rise in Manufacturing

June 29, 2015
In the second part of our series on collaborative robotics, find out what to expect as robots expand their roles into domains formerly reserved for humans.

As Jim Lawton tells it, the arrival of one of his company’s Baxter robots is often greeted with trepidation. “People do have some level of apprehension,” acknowledges Lawton, chief product and marketing officer for Rethink Robotics. Plant workers watching a Baxter emerge from its wooden shipping crate seem to be thinking: Is it going to hurt me? Is it going to take my job? “Those are the two top things that people are most worried about.”

It’s a legitimate concern. Until recently, robots have tended to keep their distance from their human coworkers, often safely ensconced in cages, where a mis-timed move of a powerful robotic arm can do no harm to relatively puny flesh.

But that’s changing as advances in machine vision, processing power and grippers drive down the total cost of ownership and, at the same time, make robots safer and better able to work alongside humans. As Lawton’s observations suggest, robots are in some cases adapting to human workspaces faster than some humans can easily keep up.

In fact, it may not be much of a stretch to say that industrial robots are in the midst of a revolution. According to the Robotic Industries Association (RIA), industrial robotics saw its best year ever in North America in 2014, with 27,685 industrial robots worth a total of $1.6 billion shipped that year. Much of that push is being driven by advances that are opening the doors for robots to a greater range of workplaces than ever before.

Richard Vaughn, automation engineering supervisor at Bosch Rexroth, says he’s seen major shifts in the industry taking place just in the past five years of his 23 years at his company. Smaller companies in more industries, he says, are now able to take advantage of robotics.

Plug-and-play versatility

One development driving the push, Vaughn says, is more versatile software. “We’ve got a product called Open Core Engineering that allows a customer to access the core of our controls in conjunction with software like LabView that’s commonly used in the lab automation world.”

Such flexibility allows companies to plug robots right into the processes they already have running at their facilities—for example, LabView-enabled data collection applications. So a process like running blood tests at a life sciences lab can now be performed more quickly and more safely by robots than the nurses running the lab. But, contrary to some fears, “it didn’t eliminate the job of the nurse,” says Vaughn of the automation he helped install at one lab. “But it took a highly dangerous task and automated it.”

Life sciences laboratories aren’t the only industries newly open to automation. “Industrial robotics is making its way into smaller factories where the norm is more about lower volumes of customized products and less about mass production,” says Yanliang Zhang, robotics product marketing and industry manager at mathematical computing software developer MathWorks.

That means that although the automotive industry still drives the bulk of the growth in robotics, robots are gaining ground in many other areas as well. According to the RIA, the automotive industry saw a 45 percent increase in orders for robots in 2014 over the previous year, while robotics use in plastics and rubber manufacturing grew 25 percent, in the semiconductor and electronics industry 21 percent, and in the metals industry 16 percent. Tasks being offloaded to robots include welding, assembly and materials handling.

Safer machines

Along with greater flexibility in where they can be deployed, advances in software and the processing power to run it have also led to another important factor driving the growth of robotics in manufacturing: increased safety. Stopping a robot’s motion to prevent an accident can be done now through an emergency command directly from the driver of the robot’s motors, right on the device, instead of having to be processed by the CPU that handles the robot’s programming. “It’s Safety on Board, so it’s part of the servo motor’s servo drive,” Vaughn explains.

A stop can be triggered by something as simple as an accidental bump by a nearby human. In this case, onboard processors can register a spike in motor torque that corresponds with a robotic arm encountering an obstacle. “We know precisely how much current, which relates directly to torque, is going to be used for that particular move,” says Nick Hunt, manager for automotive technology and support at ABB Robotics. “If we see that that torque was not what we calculated—and we know our calculations are very, very accurate—then we shut down.” By “we,” Hunt means the software driving the robot, not the operator, who doesn’t have to execute a stop command.

Safety can also be enhanced through machine vision systems and programmable safety technology that together allow a robot to react to the presence of a human on an intercept course before a collision takes place. “Take a robot going through a factory, or an automated warehouse,” explains Gary Kirckof, systems engineering group manager at Beckhoff Automation. “If a person walks in front of a robot, they have to detect that and stop.”

As Kirckof’s example demonstrates, safety features are allowing operators to release their industrial robots entirely from the cages that have confined them throughout much of their history. A shift in manufacturing toward smaller runs of more customized products is also driving the trend. “In this lower-quantity production environment,” Zhang explains, “there exists more human input, requiring that human workers and industrial robots work together cooperatively.”

Robotic coworkers

Emerging from the cage is a new breed of robots, like those produced by Rethink Robotics. Collaborative robots like Rethink’s Baxter, which can be adjusted to stand as tall as human colleagues and weighs about as much, are designed to work hand in gripper with plant workers.

Baxter and its newer sibling, Sawyer, are among the best known of the collaborative robots at present, but other robot makers are getting in the game. ABB Robotics’ new YuMi robot, announced in April, keeps its human coworkers safe with a pliable skin as well as motors that can’t produce enough torque to do serious damage. “It will comply to you in two ways,” Hunt says. “One, its surface will comply; it will compress. Also, its motors will comply; they will stop.”

In addition to spring-loaded joints that “give” when accidently bumped, Baxter helps keep workers around it safe by telegraphing its intentions with a pair of graphical eyes on the display on its head. Besides letting workers know when they should move out of the robot’s way, the big, friendly looking eyes have another function: They put people at ease. Once a newly arrived Baxter is plugged in and its “eyes” light up, Lawton says, he can see workers around it visibly relax.

Programming collaborative robots has also taken a more user-friendly turn. Lead-through programming allows human workers to “show” a robot what to do simply by moving its arm through the appropriate paths, no coding required. “One of the earliest things we do is we just show somebody how the robot works,” Lawton says, speaking of a Baxter unboxing. After moving the robot through its paces himself, Lawton has a worker step up to try it. “When you grab the arm, the face looks at the arm that you’ve grabbed,” Lawton says. “Which immediately starts to put a lot of the other people that are watching this exercise at ease because the person’s not getting hurt. They’re in control, not the robot.”

Another key advance in the programming of robots is the use of increasingly powerful simulation tools. “To verify the robustness of the decision algorithms, engineers often test the algorithms extensively in simulation environments,” Zhang says. Software packages such as the MathWorks Robotics System Toolbox give engineers the ability to both develop decision algorithms for their robots and interface with simulation tools. “The combination helps robotics researchers and engineers work in a single, integrated simulation environment to design, test and deploy robotics algorithms.”

The human element

All of which is leading to smarter, faster, more affordable robots that can work alongside people in a much greater range of industries and processes. Far from putting humans out of work, according to industry experts, these machines are helping to create more and better jobs as they bring manufacturing home and allow smaller operations to expand. In fact, says Bob Doyle, RIA’s director of communications, “The biggest problem in our industry is we can’t find enough people for these jobs.”

With so many options these days, another challenge is to know where to start with automation. Bosch Rexroth’s Vaughn advises manufacturers looking to automate or expand existing processes to first clearly define their challenges. “What are the problems that exist in your process already?” he asks his clients. “Is it a quality issue? Is it a counting issue, where you’ve got incorrect counts going out to a customer?” Selecting the right systems should follow more easily from there, he says. Defining the problem to be solved will, for example, reveal whether a fully automated system is the best choice, or one designed to collaborate with a human worker.

Even as more operations embrace robotics, so too are the people working in those operations—sometimes literally. “It’s fascinating to watch,” Rethink’s Lawton says of plant workers meeting one of his company’s robots for the first time. After the machine’s face comes to life, after Lawton and then a plant worker interacts with the robot, the other workers tend to lose their wariness and begin to crowd around.

“People are drawn to the robot,” Lawton says. And after the machine goes to work, “we’ve got people hugging the robot. We’ve got people naming the robot. We’ve got people putting hats and clothes on the robot.”

While that’s certainly not a requirement for the adoption of robotics in more workplaces, it does seem clear that safer, more versatile, and more user-friendly robots will only continue to expand their role in manufacturing.