From the era of man vs machine, we have entered into the era of man and machine. One such firm pioneering this move is Universal Robots which was founded in 2005 to make robot technology accessible to all by developing small, user-friendly, reasonably priced, flexible industrial robots that are safe to work with. Since the first collaborative robot (cobot) was launched in 2008, the Denmark headquartered company has experienced considerable growth with the user-friendly cobot now sold worldwide.
In an exclusive interaction with People Matters, Pradeep David, General Manager, South Asia, Universal Robots, shares his outlook on the future of human-machine collaboration in the world of work.
What is your outlook for human-machine collaboration for 2020 in the world of work?
The 4th Industrial Revolution has spurred manufacturers to adopt the very latest technologies, including the previously unimagined concept of human-robot collaboration, made possible through the niche market of collaborative robots, or cobots. In an effort to skyrocket quality and efficiency, an increasing number of shop floor employees are sharing their workload with collaborative robots, ultimately paving the way for a new era of super-productivity. In fact, MIT Technology Review’s study of the BMW manufacturing plant in South Carolina found that human-robot collaboration increases productivity by 85%.
With employee welfare becoming of paramount importance to companies around the world and even in India, cobots present the perfect solution, acting as ‘’helpers’’ that work alongside humans on the shopfloor, enabling both man and machine to work on what each of them does best, safely together. Furthermore, cobots are an entry point to robotic automation, enabling large and small manufacturers alike to automate parts of a production line while having to make little to no changes to the rest of the line.
What are some of the new trends that will dominate human-machine collaboration in 2020?
The human-machine collaboration will revolve around people-centric smart spaces, and enable the democratization of technology.
Collaborative robots mean that the role of machines is shifting from replacing humans to, instead, complementing their skills and opening the door to a multitude of benefits in terms of efficiency, quality, and ergonomics as well. This trend of human-robot collaboration is paving the way to unparalleled productivity across industries, ranging from automotive to electronics and even FMCG.
By working safely with humans on the shopfloor, cobots enable partial automation, which makes for an affordable automation solution for large and small manufacturers alike, even in India. Cobots allow for a ‘’bite-size’’ automation of sorts, so that companies of all sizes can automate specific parts of the production line, allowing them to take a step in the direction of Industry 4.0 and make the automation dream a reality.
What are some of the things companies should be mindful about when undertaking human-machine collaboration to make it effective?
The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) defines five levels of collaboration with robots. The lowest level, of course, is where a traditional robot is caged and operates in its own workspace. The next level is Co-existence, where there is no fence around the robot but the workspace is not shared with humans, either. Sequential collaboration is when the robot and worker share the same workspace and work in sequential movements. As we go higher up the levels of collaboration, there is Cooperation, where the robot and worker work on the same part simultaneously. The highest level is Responsive Collaboration, where the robot responds in real-time to the worker’s movements. While traditional industrial robots can only enable the lowest level, cobots allow for the highest levels of truly collaborative applications, and manufacturers should truly look into this to identify the best applications to automate with cobots.
With such an abundance of cheap labor, it is unsurprising that India is rather skeptical in their view of automation, and robots specifically. There is often much apprehension and resistance especially from employees when they hear about the entry of robots in the organization, as they are fearful of losing their jobs to these machines. However, this is far from the truth in the case of collaborative robots, which can function as tools for humans to enable the best possible work, rather than replacements.
Thus, this myth of cobots taking away jobs is one that needs to be clarified by the management of a company that plans to deploy them. After all, cobots can be helping hands, sharing their workload and assisting them in carrying out strenuous and monotonous tasks, which will then free employees for other significant roles.
Before introducing cobots in the workplace, their exact use and their relevance in empowering the work of employees should be made clear to the workforce to clear any misconceptions.
It is also important to identify the right collaborative applications to truly help efficiency reach its full potential, empowering employees to use their cobots as tools to reach organizational goals.
What are some of the jobs that will be replaced due to this collaboration? What are some of the new jobs that could be created as a result of it?
Across the globe, job losses due to automation is a prime concern. In the case of cobots, however, the case is quite the opposite. Instead of cobots stealing jobs, collaborative technology is actually working in a direction to create more jobs by taking over repetitive jobs on the shop floor, and enabling their human colleagues to work alongside them on tasks that require actual human efforts. Tedious tasks such as manual machine tending, packaging and palletizing, quality inspection to name a few, can all be automated with cobots.
For example, Blue Star Ltd., in Wada, Maharashtra, was facing issues of quality rejection as a result of the mental and physical stress caused by the repetitive but vital task of copper tube expansion, which was done manually and used to pose the threat of chronic hand injuries to their workers.
Blue Star deployed our collaborative robots to the task and completely eradicated the stress and ergonomic risk, empowering the company to increase their production by 10% and eradicate quality rejects, delivering their vision of high-quality products.
Additionally, their employees were relieved of the once-strenuous task, and instead upskilled to learn the handling of the cobot system.
For an SME example, we can look at New Engineering Works, an auto component manufacturer based in Jamshedpur, which deployed 7 cobots for machine tending, and enabled 24x7 productivity while also enhancing the work of their employees. Instead of manual machine tending, workers were taught more skilled tasks, including cobot programming. Workers found them to be as easy to use as a smartphone, easy to program within a couple of hours, making them more valuable to the company.
What do you think will be the biggest challenges companies will face while putting human-machine collaboration in practice at the workplace?
Like any new technology, resistance from the workforce is a common reaction with companies introducing robots on the shopfloor. This applies to cobots as well, which exist to better the work of their human colleagues, but also requires employees who are receptive enough to adapt to a collaborative system and relationship. Also, another roadblock that might deter people from putting their trust in human-machine collaboration is the misconception of people who think that robots are made to steal their jobs. This is especially an issue in India, where cheap labor is found in abundance. But, as explained before, the skyrocketed productivity that cobots enable actually often leads to the expansion of the organization that deploys them, thereby resulting in the net creation of jobs.
In essence, collaborative robots allow for a way to combine the best of man and machine, enabling manufacturers to blend the best of automation with the ingenuity that humans bring to the table.