In 2008, they were a mere curiosity. In 2012, they were largely viewed as a fad. But just a year later, the industry began to take note. A slew of rivals and suitors entered the fray in 2013.
Now, collaborative robots are here to stay. Many would say they're the future.
"Collaborative applications is that next new frontier and it's really going to drive business and applications, and probably applications we don't even know yet," said Roberta Nelson Shea, global technical compliance officer for Universal Robots, headquartered in Odense, Denmark.
An ABI Research study predicts the collaborative robotics market will surge to $1 billion by 2020, populating manufacturing with more than 40,000 collaborative robots. As that population grows, so does concern over robotics safety.
One of the most anticipated technical specifications in the collaborative robotics realm was released in February 2016. ISO/TS 15066:2016 Robots and Robotic Devices — Collaborative Robots provides data-driven guidelines for designers, integrators and users of human-robot collaborative systems on how to evaluate and mitigate risks.
Nelson Shea is convener for the ISO Technical Committee 299 Working Group 3 (ISO/TC 299 WG3) that was responsible for developing the new technical specification.
Nelson Shea has been involved with the robot safety standards since the first committee meeting in 1982, and as convener for ISO/TC 299 she continues to hold an impartial position in the standards community. She was chair of the ANSI/RIA 15.06 robot safety standards committee for 23 years, and is now chair emeritus. She says the initial idea of collaborative robotics was met by strong skepticism. "The premise about safety was to keep people away from robots. But then the conversation changed to say if the robot with its tool and part touches you and there's no injury, why not allow contact?"
Factoring in people
"Traditionally, the design of automated systems has not factored in people. But with robots becoming mobile and developing a greater capacity to interact with humans, that design paradigm is not the way of the future," said Roland Menassa, leader of GE's Global Research Automation Center in Van Buren Township, Mich. "Now I can place a robot with fairly decent capability on the factory floor next to people and they can operate side by side," he says.
Menassa spent 24 years with General Motors. Now he is GE's resident automation advocate. The Global Research Automation Center focuses on four main areas: robotics, controls, material handling, and work system integration, which tracks the flow of data on the factory floor. GE has embraced the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and automation as a key ingredient. It's taking the lead on factory optimization, or what it calls Brilliant Manufacturing, to optimize the flow of materials, people and processes within the organization and across its global supply chain.
"When I came to GE, collaborative robots were starting to move on the market, so I visited different factories within GE to do an assessment," said Menassa. "We are either a low-volume manufacturer of very large industrial goods such as gas turbines that weigh thousands of pounds, or human-scale, mid- to high-volume products like lighting fixtures and circuit breakers, where you have hundreds of SKUs on the line.
"We're still going to weld and have robots handling heavy equipment and performing very difficult processes," Menassa added, "but when you look at where robotics has gone in the last 55 years, we still see a lot of people on the assembly line. And that's primarily because of the challenges in compliant material. When we make our circuit breakers or lighting fixtures, there are wires and flexible materials that are very hard to handle. The challenge becomes, how do you interject automation in a manual process to handle compliant parts?"
GE utilizes Sawyer, a single-arm collaborative robot by Rethink Robotics, on the assembly line at GE Lighting in Hendersonville, N.C. The collaborative robot inserts components into a LED street light fixture before human coworkers complete the assembly.
"The factory never had a robot for many years," said Menassa. "So to bring a robot inside the factory, we didn't know what the workers would think. We had a workshop with the factory, looking at the different applications, looking at where it made sense to apply. We then held several campaigns within the plant itself where we actually had the robot on display. We introduced people to the notion of what that robot can do, how you really can touch it, and how you can work with it."
Power and force limited robots are specifically designed to have safe contact with humans by way of inherently safe features of the robot or the control system. These types of robots are typically made from lightweight materials, have force and torque sensing in their joints, and may have soft padded skins.