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Little Factory Floor Robots That Help, NOT Replace Workers

Little Factory Floor Robots That Help, NOT Replace Workers

In some manufacturing operations these days, smaller, slower, safer and more flexible robots are working side by side with people. Traditional robotic systems are massive and fast, making them extremely hazardous. Equipped with today’s new sensors and intelligence, these smaller robots pose lower risk as long as engineers and workers get good safety training. They require simpler programming than yesterday’s complex systems, so it doesn’t always take a specialist to change their instructions. Furthermore, they are much easier to move than traditional robots, so cells and lines are easier to reconfigure, adding to their flexibility. While large painting and welding units will continue to perform high volume, messy work, their little brothers and sisters will find new niches.

In the MIT robotics lab, Julie Shah has been working with BMW, Boeing, the automation company ABB Group, and other manufacturers to learn how to integrate people and robots effectively.  Shah’s work has shown that this flexibility can cut 85% of human idle time.

At ABB, for example, human operators and robot coworkers collaborate as they build the complex automated systems ABB produces. Giving people robotic helpers can reduce injury and fatigue by lifting heavy things like transmissions and performing repetitive tasks. Workers make daily decisions about what work each will do. They can even swap jobs when they want to, helping to prevent boredom and repetitive motion injury for the human partner. People still do work that requires judgment or manual dexterity that is hard to duplicate with a machine.

Not only can robots present tools and parts to their human counterparts, they can teach people how to perform jobs and prompt them through the steps of their operation. Is that dumbing down work for people? Not necessarily. As lean manufacturers know, when people can perform tasks without thinking about every step, they can critique the way the job is designed, and think of ways to improve productivity or ensure higher quality.

Manufacturers who really understand lean know that a human-machine combination can be more efficient than a large automated system for low-volume, high-mix operations. People and small flexible robots can change over faster, better for making small lots of more product variations. Big expensive systems with long and complicated setups can build at a faster rate. When demand is for smaller numbers of widely varying products, however, the result can be in inflated inventories of more SKUs -- the waste of overproduction.

Does this suggest a future without any factory jobs at all? That seems unlikely when companies value the uniqueness of human talents. People have ideas, robots don’t, as BMW’s VP of assembly, Richard Morris told Will Knight, one of the MIT report’s authors. The fact remains that manufacturers continue to need people willing and able to learn, think, and work with others -- and now that includes robotic coworkers.

Read the full MIT report here.

Karen Wilhelm has worked in the manufacturing industry for 25 years, and blogs at Lean Reflections, which has been named as one of the top ten lean blogs on the web.

Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a contributing author and not necessarily Gray Construction.