Europe's new robots could be workers' best friends

Europe’s new robots could be workers’ best friends

By Gareth Wilmer

For decades, the arrival of robots in the workplace has been a source of public concern over fears that they will replace workers and lead to unemployment.

Now that more complex, humanoid robots are already emerging, the picture is changing, with some seeing robots as promising colleagues rather than unwelcome competitors.

cobot classmates

Take, for example, Italian industrial automation company Comau. It has developed a robot that can collaborate with — and enhance the safety of — workers in rigorous cleanroom settings in the pharmaceutical, cosmetic, electronics, and food and beverage industries. The innovation is known as a “collaborative robot” or “cobot”.

The arm-like Kubot Kumao, designed to handle assembly tasks, can automatically shift from an industrial speed to a slower speed when a person enters the work area. This new feature allows one robot to be used instead of two, resulting in increased productivity and worker protection.

“It got things up a notch by allowing for a dual mode of play,” said Dr. Sotiris Makris, a roboticist at the University of Patras in Greece. You can either use it as a traditional robot or, when it’s in co-op mode, an operator can grab and move it around as an assistive device.

Mekris was the coordinator of the just-completed foundation The SHERLOCK program funded by the European Union who explored new ways to safely combine human and robot capabilities from an often overlooked angle of research: psychosocial well-being.

Creative and inclusive

Robots can help society by taking on boring, repetitive tasks, and freeing up workers to engage in more creative activities. And robotic technologies that can effectively collaborate with workers can make workplaces more inclusive, such as helping people with disabilities.

These opportunities are important to seize as the structure and age profile of the European workforce change. For example, file Increased percentage of people between the ages of 55 and 64 From 12.5% ​​of EU employees in 2009 to 19% in 2021.

Besides the social dimension, there is also an economic benefit from increasing industrial efficiency, which shows that it does not necessarily have to come at the expense of the other.

“There is increasing competition around the world, with new developments in robotics,” Makris said. This calls for action and continuous improvement in Europe.

Makris cites B Humanoid robots are being developed by a car manufacturer led by Elon Musk Tesla. Wearable robots, bionic limbs, and exoskeleton suits It is also being developed which promise to enhance the capabilities of people in the workplace.

However, the rapidly evolving wave of robots presents significant challenges when it comes to ensuring that they are effectively integrated into the workplace and meet the individual needs of people when working with them.

The case for SHERLOCK

Sherlock has also studied the potential of intelligent exoskeletons to support workers in carrying and handling heavy parts in settings such as workshops, warehouses or assembly sites. Wearable sensors and artificial intelligence have been used to monitor and track human movements.

With this feedback, the idea is that the exoskeleton can then adapt to the needs of the specific task while helping workers maintain a comfortable position to avoid injury.

“Using sensors to collect data from how the exoskeleton is performing has allowed us to better see and understand the human condition,” said Dr. Makris. “This allowed us to get prototypes of how exoskeletons might need to be redesigned and developed in the future, depending on different user profiles and different countries.”

SHERLOCK, which has just ended after four years, brings together 18 European organizations in multiple countries from Greece to Italy and the UK working in various fields of robotics.

The group of participants enabled the project to draw on a variety of perspectives, which Dr. Makris said was also helpful given the differing national rules on integrating robotics technology.

As a result of these robotic systems interacting with people, Dr. Makris said, the software has developed enough to give direction for “future developments on what kinds of features to have and how to design the workplace.”

Old hands, new tools

Another EU funded project finished this year, Participate in adaptationCobots are being used to help seniors navigate the digital workplace.

Project team developed a Cubot-equipped adaptive workstation To help people with assembly tasks, such as making a phone, a car, or a toy—or, indeed, integrating any combination of individual components into a finished product during manufacturing. The station can adapt the height of the workbench and the lighting to the physical characteristics and visual capabilities of the person. It also includes features such as eye-tracking glasses to gather information about your mental workload.

This brings more information about what people need, said Professor Giulio Jaccucci, Co-ADAPT coordinator and computer scientist at the University of Helsinki in Finland.

“You find interesting differences in how much the machine should do and how much the person should do, and also how far and how the machine should try to provide guidance,” Jaccucci said. “This is an important business that goes back to the nuts and bolts of making this work.”

However, Cobot-equipped workplaces that can fully tap into and respond to people’s mental states in real-life environments may still be several years away, he said.

“It’s very complicated because there’s the whole mechanical part, as well as trying to understand people’s situation from their psychological and physiological states,” said Professor Jaccucci.

Meanwhile, as new technologies can be used in much simpler ways to improve the workplace, CO-ADAPT has also explored digitization on a larger scale.

Smart transitions

One area has been software that enables “smart shift scheduling,” which organizes work shifts for workers based on their personal circumstances. The approach has been shown to Reducing sick leave, stress and sleep disturbances among social and healthcare workers.

“It’s a great example of how we can improve operability because we use evidence-based knowledge of how to get informed schedules,” said Professor Jaccucci.

He said focusing on the individual is key to a future of well-integrated digital tools and robots.

“Suppose you have to cooperate with a robot on an assembly task,” he said. The question is: should the robot be aware of my cognitive abilities and others? How do we divide the task between the two?

The core message from the project is that there is much room for improvement and expansion of working environments.

“It shows how much untapped potential there is,” Professor Jaccucci said.

The research in this article was funded by the European Union. This article was originally published in horizonEuropean Union Journal of Research and Innovation.

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