Business Report

The Next Wave of Factory Robots

Robots designed to work safely alongside humans could change the way we think of manufacturing.

Ever since General Motors first put “Unimate” on an assembly line in 1961, most manufacturing robots have worked in isolation, caged off from human workers. Now a new breed of more flexible robot is being developed to work more closely with people.

Automation giant ABB, based in Zurich, has developed Frida, a two-armed concept robot meant to be carried around and mounted to regular workstations on the manufacturing floor. ABB says Frida can be “easily interchanged with a human coworker” when new layouts are needed.

President Obama launched a national initiative last year to develop robots that are better able to work “alongside people” and “augment human capabilities.” The aim: bring manufacturing back to the U.S., where six million factory jobs were lost between 2001 and 2009.

Safety standards will be important if robots are to take up new tasks. Pictured is the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s robot manufacturing test bed in Maryland. NIST is working with industry groups to develop ways to ensure worker safety so that robots can be freed from their cages.

Robots can learn and adapt to the style of individual workers, says Julie Shah, head of MIT’s Interactive Robotics Group. She took on the problem of spar assembly, the process of building an airplane wing structure, in the demonstration pictured above. The robot was trained to recognize a worker’s preferred order of placing and hammering bolts, and to apply sealant at the right moment. The work, shown here in a video, was sponsored by Boeing.

Automation of a production line requires months of planning and lots of capital. That’s why businesses that have fast product cycles, or make small batches, still rely mostly on people.

The U.S. Defense Department’s advanced-research arm, DARPA, is now testing whether robots and humans can collaborate to build small numbers of customized Humvees that meet the shifting needs of ground troops. Above, a welding robot developed by David Bourne with a team at Carnegie Mellon uses a laser to project the precise location where a human worker should place a part.

Using open-source software, the Southwest Research Institute developed an application that lets programmers tell a robot how to pick up and put down unpredictably placed objects and avoid collisions. Above, a demonstration highlights an industrial robot manufactured by Motoman Robotics. Potential uses include sorting items on a conveyor belt. SWRI says open-source software could let companies collaborate more closely, speeding the pace of innovation for industrial robots.

General Motors and NASA jointly developed the Human Grasp Assist, a.k.a. Robo-Glove, from their collaboration on Robonaut 2, a humanlike robot that works at the International Space Station. The hands of Robonaut 2, pictured above, were the inspiration for powered gloves that can be worked by people; pressure sensors detect when fingers are grasping a tool, and actuators apply pressure.

GM believes the gloves could be worn by auto industry workers, extending their capabilities and reducing the risk of repetitive-stress injuries.

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The Future of Work

The future of automation: how businesses are putting algorithms and robots to work.

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