Cobots: more cooperation than collaboration

Cobot is the contraction of “collaborative” and “robot”, name and concept of a new kind of robots able to work literally hand-in-hand with humans without a safety fence between them.

fraunhoferCobots are hype and the word tends to become generic for any kind of robot working in close proximity of humans. A study from the German FRAUNHOFER – INSTITUT für Arbeitswirtschaft und Organisation IAO (2016) about first experiences with lightweight robots in manual assembly* distinguishes cooperation from collaboration.

*“Leichtbauroboter in der manuellen Montage – einfach einfach anfangen. Erste Erfahrungen von Anwenderunternehmen

This post is in great part my translation of the original study, with my personal comments.

>Lisez-moi en français

The study summarized different combinaisons in the use of robots near and with human operators, leading the authors to propose 5 classes:

  1. Robotic cell in which a robot operates on its own, fenced-off from humans by a safety fence. In such a case there is no human-robot collaboration.
  2. Coexistence of robot and human, a case in which both are close to each other but without a safety fence, yet have no common workspace. The robot has its own dedicated space distinct from the human one.
  3. Synchronized work: an organization in which human and robot share a common workspace but only one being active at a time. The work sequence is like a choreography between human and robot.
  4. Cooperation: the two “partners” work on their own tasks and can share a common space but not on the same product nor same part.
  5. Collaboration: an organization with common and simultaneous work on the same product or part. Typically the robot handles, presents and holds a part while the operator works on it.

Based on this classification, the studies reveals that collaboration is still seldom. Workers and robots work side by side on their own dedicated tasks, letting me conclude that for the time being, “cobots” are more cooperative than collaborative.

Motivation for investing in this kind of more expensive robots is mainly productivity improvement and secondary objectives are improvement of ergonomics (avoid heavy lifting for example) and testing innovative technologies.

The choice of this kind of solutions requires also new planning and management tools as well as consulting. New standards and regulations are in preparation that must be managed by companies themselves, not the system provider. All this carries additional costs.

Companies with no or only limited experience with these kinds of robots remain hesitant, therefore the authors of the study recommend to implement step wise, starting simple and going from human-robot coexistence to collaboration.

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Should robots look human to be likeable?

I wonder why so many robots projects are based on human-like androids. The human body is a great system with some mechanical complexity, but also many limitations. Thus, copying the human body for robots may end up in sub-optimized and over complex systems.

I assume the idea about having robots around us as cybernetic domestic servants, pets or caretakers in near future is scary, therefore scientists and inventors try to give their machines a more familiar look.

But should robots look human to be likeable?

Lego’s interpretation of R2D2 and C3PO

Remembering the Star Wars droids, the android C3PO looks somewhat human, is knowledgeable about many things but clumsy. R2D2 looks more like an industrial vacuum cleaner or an oversized can, but so smart and effective.

Both are likeable despite their respective looks, talents and limitations.

Another example is the couple made of Wall-e and his gynoid-friend Eve. The first is believed to be male and looks like a cubic panzer with binocular periscope while Eve is identified as female (not only by her name) despite her far lesser sensitivity than Wall-e.

Again, these two are likeable, and whatever happens to any of the four, good or bad, moves us. The human-like look of a robot does not seem to be very influencing their likeability.

About the authorIf you have an idea why so many robot projects go for androids, feel free to share in a comment!

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How lean can help shaping the future – compact factories

The factory of the future has to comply with several constraints, among which the energy efficiency and respect of environment, the latter meaning nature as well as neighborhood.

Factories of the future will probably be close to housing areas, not only because in some areas space is scarce but because commuting is a major source of waste and annoyance.

Factory leanness is directly and positively correlated to its compactness. The more compact the factory the less travel distance within. Distance induces transportation and motion wastes. The shorter the distance, the less these types of waste.

The shorter the distance, the shorter the lead time hopefully.

Compact factories do not allow large inventories. I remember Japanese factories and the mini trucks; if you cannot store, deliver more often! (not sure about energy efficiency and environment friendliness of the trucks milk runs though).

Factories of the future will be built in flow-logic, unlike their centuries-old ancestors in which flows are just nightmares. Actual greenfields easily supercede brownfields and elder facilities on this point.

Best would be scalable units that can be plugged one to another, like plug-and-play shelters having some commodities ducts and cables pre-installed/pre-wired. Among them, Smart Industry or Industrie 4.0 (Europe) standard industrial buses for connecting anything out of the Internet of Things (IoT).

Such shelters could be specialized, like holding 3D printers, laser cutters or 3D scanners ready to use. They could be rented on-demand, installed, connected and used for some period and reused somewhere else after that. A kind of Rent-a-factory..!

Compact factories (in volume) need less heating and air conditioning and less artificial light. Industrial compressed air – if still in use – or other gases need less piping and volume in pipes in compact factory, less compressor units and power.
Air leaks in bigger facilities often require an additional compressor for compensation.
All good points for the sake of energy efficiency.

Most of the principles listed above are lessons learnt from lean experiences with existing factories. In such old-style factories, the improvements are often limited by physical, building construction constraints. Taking these lessons learnt into account is a way lean can help shaping the future.

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Would you trade Maria for a robot?

I am fascinated about the promises of robotics and other advanced technologies and prospectively analyzing what consequences – good or bad – the coming disruptions will bring.

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During my vacation on Canarian island Fuerteventura and regular visitor of my hotel’s wellness center, I had plenty of time for thinking about things like “would I trade Maria (name modified) for a robot?”

Maria is the charming lady welcoming guests at the wellness center. She is a soft speaking kind and gentle person, doing her best to welcome and introduce guests from multiple countries to the relaxing experience of her realm, despite her limited foreign language skills.

I assume she makes her living in the hotel industry as many Canarians and is better off in this good smelling chill out atmosphere than her colleagues making rooms or serving in restaurants.

While relaxing in a hot spa, I was thinking about the future and the possible ever growing automation.

Trading Maria?

In such a perspective and “inspired” by the place, I wondered if I would trade Maria’s warm welcome for a technological solution, like a card lock as we have on our room door?

After all what Maria was doing was a bit of small talk, handing out a towel and a pair of slippers. She was probably doing more than that but the “value” I perceived was limited to this.

I could take a towel from a pile and a pair of slippers by myself and a card lock would be enough to screen out people having no right to access to the wellness center.

Everything else being equal, if I had to chose between Maria and a help-yourself solution, I would favor Maria, far better looking than a card lock and better help to improve my Spanish.

1% discount on the vacation price

What if trading Maria for the above mentioned alternative would give me 1% discount on the vacation price?

Well, the saving would be equivalent to four drinks at the hotel bar. I still value Maria’s kindness more than this. So I’d turn down the discount and let Maria make her living.

And 2% discount?

This would buy me and my wife a set of wonderful tapas and a glass of wine in a typical harbor tavern facing the Ocean. With such a perspective and having experienced how fine these tapas are, I’d say Maria, your job could be at risk..!

And 4% discount?

Maria would lose her job for a two persons full day excursion to Lanzarote’s volcanos and other sightseeing highlights, including the ferry across the Ocean channel and the buffet lunch plus three or four cups of Cava (the local sparkling wine coming closest to champagne) at the hotel’s bar.

Why trading Maria?

Still in my warm spa with dimmed light, chill out music and zen-inspired decoration, I went on with my analysis; what would turn me from being a nice guest praising Maria’s kind attentions into a selfish heartless guest trading her for a humanless process?

The tradeoff between what I get in actual conditions and what I could get more with a minimal additional effort. Maria’s charming ways would not stand against a tangible and meaningful personal advantage like getting more out of our vacation for the same price.

I believe a majority of guests would have similar analysis and similar conclusion.

My guess is that in future consumers will welcome all advantages of automation and robotics as the price for them will be minimal or remain hidden/unknown, just as most of us enjoyed buying cheaper garments made in low-cost countries even they came at the expenses of local jobs.
Someone else’s job.

Post scriptum

The term ‘robot’ in this post’s title is both a teaser and a generic term for a technological humanless substitute of human occupation.

Maria may give up her job to a humanoid robot, but I don’t think the return on investment will allow it in near future.

The real Maria gave up giving free Pilates discovery lessons, a part of the hotel’s animations, to an externally hired coach. From now on the hotel guests must pay for it. Not the trend clients expect…

What jobs in the factory of the future? Part5

Not as Many Jobs, But Jobs

Contrasting with my pessimistic analysis about jobs in the factory of future, Hal Sirkin, a senior partner with The Boston Consulting Group, would see the positive side of the half full glass in his article published on www.wired.com

The author discusses the possibility of Foxconn, the enormous Asian gadget manufacturer, to open factories to the U.S.

These US based factories would serve both tech company clients and the consumers who buy the gadgets they assemble, where they live. Cost differences being levelled by rising wages in China, the availability of advanced technology (automation, robotics) and an educated workforce to run it.

Sirkin warns “These Foxconn factories won’t be like the auto plants of the 1950s, that bygone era politicians so often invoke when promising the revival of U.S. manufacturing. Most of the jobs in these factories likely will require more than a high school diploma, and there won’t be as many of them to be had. (../..) Not as Many Jobs, But Jobs”.

 What jobs in the factory of the future? >Part1 >Part2 >Part3 >Part4

Bandeau_Lego2Chris HOHMANN

Robots won’t take your job, investors will

In a previous post I outlined cobots utopia where collaborative robots extend the worker’s abilities and compensate some human weaknesses. In this perspective cobots could keep aging workers on the job and help to improve industrial jobs’ image, often quoted Dirty, Dangerous and Difficult.

The cooperation between robots and workers could increase manpower productivity, hence reducing the cost gap with low-cost countries.

How likely is this to happen?

Let’s put it bluntly: why should an investor invest to compensate the human weaknesses with high-tech, knowing that in the system made of the association of robots and humans, the latter will still be the limiting factor?

Everything else being equal, why should an investor choose the precarious option of backing-up expensive workforce with cobots when a cheaper basic workforce is available somewhere in poorer, not-so-advanced countries?

Everything else being equal, why should an investor choose to invest in a complex combination of man-and-machine when full automation / robotics may soon be / already is (?) available?

Big Data combined with cyberphysical devices will come closer to human intelligence, allowing machines to learn from experience and predict failures, stoppage, breakdowns and act accordingly.

If investors are facing the choice between a cobot assisted human worker and a full automated process, I’m not sure many cobots will sell. What’s sure, the robot makers will sell, either robots or cobots!

Related: Cobots utopia

Robot as coworker, a cobot

Automation and robotics are ways for old economies to keep up with competition being inovative and cost effective. Yet aging of population, raising concern about health and safety, stiffer regulations, etc. may welcome the robot as a companion. Those able to work with humans on a shopfloor are called cobots, collaborative-robots.

Collaborative industrial robots are complex machines which work hand in hand with human beings. In a shared work process, they support and relieve the human operator. One example: a robot lifts and positions a heavy workpiece whilst a human worker welds light iron hooks to it. During this task, the operator and the various elements of the robot, such as the robot arm and tool, are in close proximity to each other. The robot and the worker may come into direct contact with each other as a result. A comparable situation can be found with mobile service robots, which are being used in increasing numbers in the proximity of human beings in occupational contexts and in public or private environments.

>Source: Institut für Arbeitsschutz der Deutschen Gesetzlichen Unfallversicherung (IFA)

HIRO, a collaborative human-like robot for industrial applications (Japan)

Meet BAXTER, the Cobot (USA)

>Read Robotics Featured Articles – The End of Separation: Man and Robot as Collaborative Coworkers on the Factory Floor

Andrew, cobot for lab (Switzerland)

Related >Cobots Utopia

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