Robots break out of cages on the factory floor, but it’s a good thing

Collaborative robots, or cobots, have been working with humans on the factory floor for years, but when it comes to the large-scale industrial robots that can lift and move massive pieces of manufacturing, the danger to human workers is so great that the robots are bolted down to the factory floor behind fences so a human never comes near them.

That is starting to change as robotics becomes more widespread across industries.

Today there are, on average, 84 robots for every 10,000 workers in the U.S., according to the International Federation of Robotics. This places the U.S. second to Europe, at 99 units, and ahead of Asia, which to date averages 63 units (though the most roboticized country in the world is South Korea). While these next-generation robots are revolutionizing companies and expanding their bottom line, there is one very real caveat: Their increasing interactivity and mobility opens up the possibility of injury to human co-workers.

“[Large-scale industrial] robots in factories today are literally kept in cages,” says Clara Vu, co-founder and vice president of engineering at Veo Robotics, a start-up developing sensor technology to allow industrial robots to work safely side-by-side with humans. Vu, who has been building robots for more than 20 years, got her start working as an intern for iRobot when they were just a tiny start-up in the attic of a shopping mall. Vu wrote the programming language for iRobot’s most well-known product, the Roomba, an autonomous robotic vacuum cleaner that debuted in 2002.

Clara Vu, a former Roomba engineer who co-founded Veo Robotics, developer of cobots that can safely work with humans without being bolted to factory floors.

Veo Robotics

Vu says the cages are not to keep the robots in but to keep the humans out. “The robots are bolted to the floor. They’re not going anywhere. But … the robot is not aware of the human, and it can be thousands of pounds, and it’s moving really fast and people can get hurt.”

Veo Robotics plans to change that.

On Monday the Massachusetts-based company rolled out its new product, called Veo FreeMove, which gives robots spatial awareness of every object and obstacle in their reach. Its monitoring system signals a robot to slow or stop if an unrecognized, human-size object is closer to the robot than an acceptable protective separation distance, or PSD. When the obstruction passes, the robot will continue as programmed, allowing work to proceed without interruption.

The price tag: $30,000.

Partnering with four of the world’s largest robot manufacturers — Kuka, Fanuc, ABB and Yaskawa — Veo retrofitted 3-D depth sensors and computer vision software into their robots and conducted trials with a number of automotive, household appliance and consumer packaged-goods manufacturers. For now Veo is using Microsoft Xbox Kinect depth cameras but is working on building its own sensors.

“The collaborative power and force-limited robots have been very useful for assembly of small things. What we would like to do is extend those advantages to all robots, regardless of the size. Whether it’s a robot that can carry a car, or a robot that can carry a car door, or a robot that moves fast and positions things very precisely,” says Patrick Sobalvarro, Veo’s CEO and co-founder.

What we hear from every factory, every line manager … is that they can’t hire enough production workers. The production labor workforce is aging out, and one of the things we see as an advantage of our system is that physical strength will no longer be required for production workers.

Patrick Sobalvarro

Veo’s CEO and co-founder

There has been tremendous growth of robotics driven by the automotive sector, but robots are now moving far beyond heavy industrial manufacturing environments and into other industries, such as electronics, food services, law enforcement and health care — working as human assistants, not replacements, on the manufacturing floor.

The rise of the collaborative robot has been a revolution in business led by machines like Rethink Robotics’ Sawyer. As companies increase production by reducing errors and improving quality and speed, the demand for these lighter-weight industrial robots has accelerated around the world: In 2017 worldwide shipments of these robots totaled around 387,000 units, up from around 294,000 the previous year.

Cobots are cheaper, lighter and more versatile than ordinary robots and physically interact with humans in a shared workspace. They are also designed to operate with limited guidance or, in some cases, completely autonomously, says Henrik Christensen, director of robotics at the University of California, San Diego.

By 2025 cobots will likely account for almost 35% of all industrial robots and exceed a market value of $9 billion, according to Loup Ventures, a venture capital firm that focuses on frontier tech. One of the main factors contributing to this growth will be a decrease in their price tags and an advancement of their capabilities in edge computing.

“It used to be that we would only see robots in very large enterprises, automotive and aerospace. Now through collaborative robots, it’s made possible for very small mom-and-pop shop to adopt a robot. It’s simple enough to program that they can basically buy one of these, they can install it, and they can use it within half an hour,” Christensen said.

According to McKinsey & Co., almost half the activities people are paid roughly $16 trillion in wages to do in the global economy have the potential to be automated. Activities most susceptible, says McKinsey, involve physical activities in highly structured and predictable environments, as well as the collection and processing of data. In the United States, these activities make up 51% of activities in the economy, accounting for almost $2.7 trillion in wages.

Veo’s vision of making the large-scale industrial robot as free among humans in the factory as cobots is not one its management thinks is a threat to the human worker of the future. “What we hear from every factory, every line manager … is that they can’t hire enough production workers,” Sobalvarro said. “The production labor workforce is aging out, and one of the things we see as an advantage of our system is that physical strength will no longer be required for production workers. This company is predicated on the belief that production labor continues to be tremendously important in manufacturing.”

For more on tech, transformation and the future of work, join CNBC at @ Work: Human Capital + Finance Summit in Chicago on July 19.

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