Robots and humans, for decades kept separate from each other on factory floors, are inching toward integration.
After years of walling off robots to ensure safety, some companies are finding ways to put them alongside people, with lightweight materials and new sensors enabling engineers to build machines that can be employees’ partners or even worn on the job.
“Typically we would put up these big gates to keep people and robotics separated,” said Scott Whybrew, director for global manufacturing engineering vehicle systems at General Motors Co. (GM:US) “Human-safe robotics, though, gives us the ability for robots to work side-by-side with the operators.”
People-friendly machines hold the potential to propel a global robot market estimated at $8.7 billion in 2012. BMW is testing models that could someday collaborate with workers, while GM is developing its “robo-glove” to give employees a more-muscular grip. Google Inc. (GOOG:US), with eight acquisitions in the past year, is also signaling its interest in robotics.
Robot-human teams would combine machines’ strength and employees’ ability to see, feel, touch and think -- qualities impossible or too costly to replicate mechanically. It’s a new frontier in automation after mechanization helped boost U.S. factory output by 53 percent in the past two decades even as manufacturing employment tumbled 28 percent.
“Robots and humans working together are the best of both worlds,” said Jose Saenz, research manager for Fraunhofer IFF, a German company that studies factory automation. “How can you have a robot carrying the load while a person guides it? These are future scenarios that we’ll be seeing soon.”
As robots get safer, cheaper and more petite, smaller companies may be able to take advantage of the technology, according Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation trade group in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
“Collaborative robots will open up a lot of eyes,” Burnstein said. “There’s a huge opportunity there.”
In Australia, a meat-industry trade group contracted with automation manufacturer HDT Global to mechanize slaughterhouse processes that required workers to snag carcasses with a hook while slicing off beef chunks as heavy as 50 pounds (23 kilograms). That motion often leads to shoulder strain and severe hand cramping.
HDT Global, whose products span tactical rescue vehicles to robotic prosthetic hands, devised a motor-driven hook mounted on a robot arm that replaces the need for human pulling power to make a clean cut. It was delivered last year.
“What we’ve definitely proved is that this task does not need to be done by a 6-foot-3 burly Australian guy because the device amplifies the force so much,” said Julio Santos-Munne, director of HDT’s operations in Evanston, Illinois. “Part of the intent was to be able to have women do this task.”
Automation isn’t risk-free. Robots have been linked to more than 20 fatal accidents in the U.S., the most recent in 2009, according to U.S. Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The experience of Intuitive Surgical Inc. (ISRG:US), the maker of a $1.5 million robot surgery system, also shows that even machines designed to work on a human scale can pose dangers. On Nov. 11, the Sunnyvale, California-based company issued an “urgent medical device recall” to alert doctors that friction in the arms of some units may cause them to stall in surgery.
To help humans do their jobs in proximity to robots, Magdeburg, Germany-based Fraunhofer IFF is studying the force needed for a machine to bruise a worker. Saenz, the research manager, said the idea is to help set a standard for the automation industry, which now relies on safety barriers with automatic power cutoffs to separate robots from people.
Companies from Bayerische Motoren Werke AG (BMW) to Escalette LLC, a small plumbing-fixtures maker in Costa Mesa, California, are experimenting with robots that work alongside humans. Built by Odense, Denmark-based Universal Robots, the machines are safer, take up less space and don’t disrupt employees’ movements as traditional robots do, said Roland Guhr, manager of assembly technical planning at BMW’s South Carolina assembly plant.
BMW is using the collaborative robots in a pilot program to help install glass and apply a foil lining to car doors, jobs with a risk of repetitive-motion injury, Guhr said. While those robots don’t yet engage with workers, interactive prototypes may be ready in a few years and reach factories in about a decade.
“The next phase of the pilot will be where the collaborative robots will really work together with the associate,” Guhr said.
Google’s robotics purchases include Boston Dynamics Inc., a maker of robots for the U.S. Defense Department. That company, based in Waltham, Massachusetts, will be part of a new product area led by Andy Rubin, former head of the Android software unit, Google said in an e-mailed statement.
Software expense is part of the spending that makes the robot market larger than just the devices themselves. When those costs and engineering systems are accounted for, the industry generated $26 billion in sales, according to the Frankfurt-based International Federation of Robotics trade group.
Some machines work so closely with humans that they’re worn by the users. That’s the case with strap-on exoskeletons from Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT:US), the world’s largest defense contractor. It’s developing the Human Universal Load Carrier, or HULC, for the U.S. military and the Mantis model for industrial use, with a mechanical extension to ease strain on a worker’s arm.
Motorola Solutions Inc. (MSI:US), the telecommunications-equipment maker, developed a hands-free computer that attaches to a hard hat’s lining. Using voice command, the HC1 Headset Computer pulls up video, manuals or e-mail to a boom-mounted, 1-inch (2.5-centimeter) monitor just below a user’s line of sight.
A camera can stream video to a command station where a more experienced employee can guide the wearer through complicated tasks, said Nicole Tricoukes, a technology leader for emerging business at Schaumburg, Illinois-based Motorola Solutions.
“We got prodded by our customers and partners to almost provide the holy grail of mobile computing,” Tricoukes said.
GM’s robo-glove, which is being developed with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, creates 20 pounds of gripping power with little effort. Resembling a blue ski glove, the device may enable workers to load windows into car doors with less strain, reducing the likelihood of an injury, GM’s Whybrew said.
The glove weighs less than two pounds and has a separate battery the size of a hand-drill power pack that a user straps to an arm. It uses sensors to open and shut mechanical actuators in reaction to finger movements.
GM is working with undisclosed third-party companies to commercialize the robo-glove as the next generation of human-robot collaboration, Whybrew said. He envisions a factory floor where machines aid people instead of competing for their work.
“If the robot would bump into you, it would actually say ‘Hey excuse me,’” Whybrew said. “It’s almost like another person working next to you.”
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