Reading between the lines: Safran puts Cobots at the Forefront of the Factory of the Future

Collaborative robots (cobots) are trendy and a must have for any organization claiming to go for the factory of the future. An article on Safran’s corporate website (May 2017) explains how the high-tech group is putting Cobots at the Forefront of the Factory of the Future. Of course, it caught my attention.

But what is hype and what is real necessity? The second question reading the article is about the emphasized statement that machines will not replace people. Could it hide the fear of some new luddites smashing the new robots?

The article in a nutshell

The article is an interview of the Head of the Group’s “Ergonomics” program. The article’s highlights are:

  • Safran defines 3 types of cobots:
    • those controlled by an operator located within the immediate vicinity of the system (co-manipulation)
    • those controlled remotely (teleoperation)
    • exoskeletons; electromechanical systems providing active assistance to employees
  • Safran’s guiding principle is to combine the capabilities of a robot with the skills of a human. The article highlights in bold letters that “At no point will machines replace people, they will simply assist them with their work. It is a real partnership”.
  • Cobots enable the employability of aging workers or those with disabilities as well as relieving workers from low value-added tasks.
  • Work organisation and content has to be reviewed, for instance how workers can be part in cobots maintenance
  • Cobots bring flexibility at low cost when compared to traditional robots.

More than hype?

My first question when reading the article’s title was: is the experimentation with cobots a must have for a high-tech company or a real necessity?

Well, it seems that in France at least, the sustained growing activity in aerospace industry meets some difficulties to attract qualified workers and young people eager to work as qualified mechanics. Cobots may well be part of the solution. If work is made easier and high-tech goes to the shopfloor, younger people may consider this career path.

Extend and keep the aging but highly qualified workforce is another expected benefit from bringing in collaborative robots.

Flexibility, with regards to low volumes and high variability is another benefit that can be checked as valid.

From my understanding, cobots are more than fancy new high-tech toys for geeks in industrial engineering. There are real issues to be solved and cobots may be, at least a part of the solution. Cobots and their applications being relatively new, experimentation is still required. Over time, the reality of expected benefits will show, as well as potential new usage and applications.

What about the statement “At no point will machines replace people”?

On the one hand, given the need to replace aging and retiring workforce and to cope with increasing activity in aerospace industry, as well as the nature of the jobs, it is most probably true that machines will not drive human workers out of business soon.

Full automation is hard to imagine with the low volume high mix that characterizes building aircrafts or aircraft equipment.

On the other hand, layoffs are periodically reported in this industry. They happen when companies merge, plants are relocated or when the sales are going down. For people fearing to lose their jobs, the coming of machines purposely installed to reduce the part of human work can be seen as a threat.

Therefore, preventing any new luddites smashing the cobots is understandable.

View Christian HOHMANN's profile on LinkedIn

Can new luddites smash robots in anger?

It strikes me how many robot and cobot promoters downplay the risk for human to lose jobs to automation, digitalization and the raise of new generation of robots. The fact that human workers will remain in business seems too forcefully highlighted to be true. Therefore my question: can new luddites smash robots in anger?

According to wikipedia, the Luddites were a group of English textile workers and weavers in the 19th century who destroyed weaving machinery as a form of protest, fearing that machines would replace their role in the industry. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luddite

When it comes to promote the new generations of robots and especially those able to work safely in close proximity with humans, and even collaborate (cobots, made of “collaborative” and “robot”), the benefits put to the forefront is to help workers alleviating dangerous or health-hazardous situations. Cobots would take care of lifting and manipulating heavy loads and/or the repeated motions to grasp, move and hold parts, while the human worker would concentrate on value-adding tasks.

For those workers which would be made unnecessary thanks to automation, their future would look good nevertheless, because they would be recycled in higher-value jobs, like industrial engineering, continuous improvement and many other occupations.

It looks to me like painting the future a bit too blue and who can reasonably believe all this wishful thinking?

Knowing that most of the human tasks can be transferred to robots, Artificial Intelligence and automation, or a combination of all, can we believe that all this high-tech in development and the significant investments required will be made only to improve workers’ jobs?

Human workers will remain the weak link in automated processes in many aspects, beginning with variability: variability in availability, mood, health, discipline, focus, speed of execution, performance…

Why would investors refrain to reap all the benefits of the new solutions?

And if some would, as an act of humanity, I believe many would not have much hesitation and once the competitiveness is challenged, I cannot believe that care for humanity would count for much.

So if human workers cannot be kept in their jobs, they have to be “recycled”.

Yet the speed of progress with autonomous systems is such that most unnecessary human actors will be out of occupation before they can convert to a new one.

Besides, who can believe that ALL outperformed workers can be recycled into specialized technicians, industrial engineers, problem solvers and continuous improvers?

Who can believe we would need so many, if need at all?

My assumption is that the robot and automation promoters fear a new luddites uprising who could smash the high-tech in anger for losing their jobs.

But unlike the 19th century workers, the threatened contemporary ones have overall higher education, access to instant information. It can’t be long they understand the risks by their own or by someone else’s analysis.

Therefore, it is necessary to downplay what could happen?

Comments welcome.

View Christian HOHMANN's profile on LinkedIn