1493617095135 - ‘Cobots’ and humans are learning to work together

‘Cobots’ and humans are learning to work together

Robots that are safe enough to work alongside people on the factory floor are the latest trend in automating production lines.

Previously, fast moving and heavy robotic machinery were caged to protect people working nearby.

A Volkswagen factory worker was killed in Germany in 2015 while he was setting up a stationary robot when it grabbed and crushed him against a metal plate.

But a new design of ‘collaborative’ robots, or cobots, have sensors that detect if a person comes too close. When that happens the cobot stops.

READ MORE: Mission to make New Zealand manufacturing ‘sexy’

More than 250,000 industrial robots were sold in 2015 according to the International Federation of Robotics.

Auckland lock maker Assa Abloy bought a lightweight robotic arm cobot for its production line last October.

Assa Abloy manufacturing engineering manager Marc Simkin said the Universal Robots UR5 cobot reduced health and safety risks and stopped staff working over time.

The company aimed to have 26 cobots by 2020, Simkin said.

Callaghan business innovation advisor Nathan Stantiall said the UR5 costs €23,500 (NZ$37,000) was an affordable option for small to medium sized businesses.

Cobot were also easy to programme and paid for themselves quickly through more efficient production, Stantiall said.

Newer models from other companies featured a sensory “skin”, he said.

Italian cobot maker Comau had its latest skin-covered 150 kilogram model Aura at the Hannover Messe tradeshow in Germany on Tuesday.

Comau chief operating officer of robotics Pietro Ottavis said its invention paved the way for “human-ufacturing”.

Ottavis said Comau wanted to keep humans at the centre of factory production with cobots doing the heavy lifting tasks.

Aura could be manually controlled to pick up heavy metal parts and fit them onto a car, Ottavis said.

After repeating the task the cobot could perform it on its own.

Stantiall said co-working with robots would increase job satisfaction for factory workers.

“In every case the workers have learned to love the robot, appreciate that it’s not going to take their job away and gives them more fulfilment.”

Simkin said his workers had accepted the cobot and named it Victoria.

– Madison Reidy travelled to Germany with assistance from Callaghan Innovation. The Fairfax Media business innovation series runs in partnership with Callaghan Innovation.