Robotics and automation are vital aspects of digital transformation – and human-robot collaboration (HRC) has a pivotal role to play. HRC entails people and machines working not simply alongside each other, but actively cooperating. Contrary to popular belief, automation will not replace humans in the long run. Instead, robots will relieve people of monotone and strenuous activities. In particular, machines can efficiently perform tasks that are potentially unhealthy or very difficult, which will ultimately protect employee well-being.
For certain activities, automated solutions are often more cost-effective than their manual equivalents. However, manufacturing and logistics facilities will not be totally void of humans. People and machines will, instead, be partners. They will cooperate and communicate within networks. But humans will always remain in control in the final instance. Even the most automated systems will remain a mix of man and machine. In fact, the more advanced the solution, the greater the importance of humans retaining oversight and ultimate decision-making power.
While machines and robots offer total precision, speed, process stability, and uninterrupted operation, humans retain distinct strengths that cannot easily be emulated. These include, for example, cognitive ability, sensitivity, flexibility, a holistic mindset and, above all, judgement.
Man-machine interaction is of growing importance within the framework of Industry 4.0. Increasingly, technological components in manufacturing processes operate within inter-enterprise and international networks, and in some instances manage themselves. Automotive manufacturers, in particular, have already made significant progress in this regard, and are leading the way in the deployment of robots and automated guided vehicles (AGVs). There is also a clear trend toward ever-increasing automation in intralogistics, where the adoption of robotics will soon be on par with the automotive industry.
The main challenge to man-machine collaboration is ensuring safety in a shared space. Clearly, the overriding priority is to eliminate any risk of injury to the employee. To this end, it is vital to precisely and comprehensively predict all possible human movements. Machines need to be able to calculate potential movements, and to accurately detect actions being taken – in particular those that are safety-critical. Humans remain the greatest safety risk in the context of HRC. A robot must therefore be able to divine a human’s intentions on the basis of their initial movements.
In addition, communication and data exchange are important. In this case, a priority is ease of integration and ease of operation. A further focus is the ability of in-house staff to perform maintenance and programming tasks. Applied HRC, in other words, cooperation between human beings and machines without a defined safety zone, is still in its infancy. However, it will undoubtedly be a key consideration in future manufacturing and logistics facilities. The development of truly effective HRC solutions has huge potential in these industries.
“Seamless interaction between cyber-physical components, such as sensors and robots, in line with customer and process requirements, is central to the deployment of HRC applications in manufacturing and logistics.” Prof. Klaus-Dieter Thoben, Head of BIBA – Bremer Institute of Production and Logistics