As Manufacturers Rely More on Robotics, Researchers Find Ways to Integrate Human-Robot ‘Teams’ in Factories

humanrobotteamThe division of labor between humans and robots in most manufacturing centers around the world is fairly strict: robotic equipment is often kept separated from manual workers for safety reasons. But all of that could change soon, according to researchers, as more companies look for ways to integrate robot and human “teams” into their highly specialized factories.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, under a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation’s National Robotics Initiative, are working together to find new ways to create these human-robot teams in the manufacturing industry.

Dubbing them “cobots,” or robots working collaboratively with humans, “Our goal is to improve work processes and integrate the work of the robots with the work of people,” said Bilge Mutlu, assistant professor of computer sciences at UW and director of the university’s Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory.

The research that Mutlu and others are working on aims to “ease the transition,” he said, of robots into manufacturing environments with humans.

One such example that is already being used in the industry are robots that run on a platform called Baxter, created by Rethink Robotics. Baxter robots have two arms and a tablet-like panel that act as “eyes” to show what the robot will do next.

Using cameras, Baxter robots can check their positions and those of nearby objects, and their movements can be stopped by a human hand — something that improves safety in high-tech and heavy machinery manufacturing facilities.

These robots can also handle variable tasks rather that simple repetitive motions. This presents a new challenge to tool presetter manufacturers, who must find new ways to program devices to enact complicated movements based on the objects in their vicinity.

In fact, such robots are already being considered for use in Shenzen, China, at the Foxconn factory, which is one of the largest employers in the world.

For now, Foxconn and companies like Apple have humans and robots working together. Foxconn began the use of 10,000 robots (costing about $20,000 to $25,000 each) in 2011, eventually planning to phase out human workers. However, last year the company hired 100,000 human workers, so for now going 100% robot isn’t a reality.

Robots like Baxter could appear in more factories, however: just this month, GE Ventures, Goldman Sachs, Bezos Expeditions and other large firms invested $26.6 million in Rethink Robotics.

The responsibility of Mutlu’s team is to see how the robots will interact with their human counterparts. So far they’ve studied the “eye contact” the robots make (or don’t make) to indicate whether or not they need something.

And this may be a part of human nature, according to Mutlu. “Generally our intuition is that when you put the robot in an environment where he works with people, automatically people are interpreting what the robots want,” he said.

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