Robots are starting to collaborate with human workers in factories, offering greater efficiency and flexibility.
- By Will Knight on September 16, 2014
Sometime in the next couple of years, if everything goes to plan, workers at BMW's manufacturing plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina, will be introduced to an unusual new teammate—a robot arm that will roll around handing them tools and parts as they assemble the German carmaker's luxury vehicles.
Once isolated behind safety fences, robots have already become safe and smart enough to work alongside people on a few manufacturing production lines. By taking over tiresome and repetitive tasks, these robots are replacing some people. But in many situations they are augmenting the abilities of human workers—freeing them to do tasks that require manual dexterity and ingenuity rather than extreme precision and stamina. These robots are also increasing productivity for manufacturers and giving them new flexibility.
BMW introduced robots to its human production line at Spartanburg in September 2013. The robots, made by a Danish company called Universal Robots, are relatively slow and lightweight, which makes them safer to work around. On the production line they roll a layer of protective foil over electronics on the inside of a door, a task that could cause workers repetitive strain injury when done by hand, says Richard Morris, vice president of assembly at the Spartanburg plant. Existing industrial robots could perform this work, and do it much more quickly, but they could not easily be slotted into a human production line because they are complicated to program and set up, and they are dangerous to be around.
While the prospect of increased automation will inevitably cause worries about disappearing jobs, BMW's Morris can't foresee a day when robots will replace humans entirely on the factory floor. "Ideas come from people, and a robot is never going to replace that," he says.
Reduction in workers' idle time when they collaborate with robots
Still, robots on human production lines at BMW and other manufacturers promise to transform the division of labor between people and machines as it has existed for the past 50 years. The more traditional robots that apply paint to cars, for example, work with awesome speed, precision, and power, but they aren't meant to operate with anyone nearby. The cost of setting up and programming these robots has helped ensure that plenty of small-batch manufacturing work is still done by hand. The new robots, with their ability to work safely next to human coworkers, let manufacturers automate parts of the production process that otherwise would be too expensive. And eventually, by collaborating with human workers, the robots will provide a way to combine the benefits of automation with those of human ingenuity and handcraft.....
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