In a constantly growing world, the demand for manufacturing is perpetually increasing. Populations are expanding and urbanising, always in need of more of everything. Robotics has always been seen as the most effective, most efficient way of keeping up with this demand. Automated production is supposed to be cost-efficient, allow for much greater output and perform tasks too dangerous for humans. A robot doesn’t need food, sleep or wages. For production-line assembly, it seems the perfect solution, and the development of ‘collaborative’ robots will enable manufacturers to overcome the issues that robots do have in this field.
The robots traditionally used in manufacturing are known as ‘fenced’ robots, as due to health and safety concerns they cannot operate alongside human workers. They are either fixed in place, or operate on a rail, and due to their comparatively simple nature cannot adapt to changing circumstances. They will do their task until told not to, and as such pose a risk, although slight under normal circumstances, to workers nearby. This can have a knock-on effect on quality, as it means there is no oversight or ability to make the sort of minor adjustments that a human would be able to. As such, while automation in this way is an option for businesses, they cannot take full advantage of both the economic and mechanical benefits of automation. What can change this is the development over the last few years of more advanced collaborative robots, such as the Sawyer from Rethink Robotics.
What makes a collaborative robot different is an ability to adjust to its surroundings and react to them. As well as developments in sensor technology that give a much higher level of quality control, the robot will slow down when a human is present and can stop in event of an emergency. Rather than older fenced models, collaborative robots are designed to work alongside humans, and as such are held to a much higher standard of safety. Advances in robotic tools allow for a much higher quality of product, with collaborative robots being able to work to much finer tolerances than fenced ones. They are also capable of ‘learning’, with the ability to be corrected by a human trainer, and then follow the new pattern, without having to have their code re-written. All this means that collaborative robots can carry out a far wider range of tasks than previous manufacturing robots could and avoid the quality issues that have always plagued fenced robots.
This is not to say that the older model or fixed assembly-line robots is obsolete, but rather that collaborative robots have developed to the point that they should be seen as an integral part of manufacturing. If companies fully implement collaborative robots like the Sawyer into their process, alongside fenced robots and human workers, then they will be able to keep pace with the rise in demand for manufactured good. Using collaborative robots will remove the redundant elements a human working alongside them. No longer will machined pieces have to be checked and re-checked, because the robots making them will be working to a much higher standard. Instead, workers will be free to fully innovate and develop new products and ideas, and channel their skills into a real end product. Collaborative robots, designed to work alongside humans will revolutionise manufacturing in just the same way fenced models did, and will be cheaper, more efficient and more effective.