Business Report

How Human-Robot Teamwork Will Upend Manufacturing

Robots are starting to collaborate with human workers in factories, offering greater efficiency and flexibility.

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.

A robot works alongside human workers on a BMW car door assembly line.

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.

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.

Sales of Universal’s robot arms have grown steadily since they first came to market in 2008. Other companies, such as Boston-based Rethink Robotics, are developing similar robotic systems designed to work close to people. Rethink sells a two-armed robot called Baxter that is not only safe but extremely easy to program; any worker can teach it to perform a new task simply by moving its arms through the necessary steps.

The next generation of robots to work alongside humans are likely to be faster and more powerful, making them considerably more useful—but also necessitating more sophisticated safety systems. These safeguards are now affordable because the sensors and computer power needed to react quickly and intelligently to safety risks have become cheap. In the future robots will also collaborate with humans in far more complicated ways—performing the heavy lifting in an installation job, for example, while the human does the necessary wiring.

BMW is developing its next generation of robots in collaboration with the lab of Julie Shah, an assistant professor at MIT who researches human-machine collaboration. The lab is also working with the aircraft makers Boeing and Embraer. “If you can develop a robot that’s capable of integrating into the human part of the factory—if it just has a little bit of decision-making ability, a little bit of flexibility—that opens up a new type of manufacturing process more generally,” Shah says.

Shah is developing ways for robots to interact intelligently with their human coworkers. At ABB, a Swiss energy and automation company, human and robot teammates swap tasks to learn each other’s preferences, resulting in a process that gets the job done more quickly. Shah has also shown that teams made of humans and robots collaborating efficiently can be more productive than teams made of either humans or robots alone. In her experiments, this coöperative process reduced human idle time by 85 percent.

Workers seem comfortable with the idea of robotic colleagues, too. The latest research from Shah’s lab, in fact, suggests that people collaborating with manufacturing robots prefer to let the robot take the lead and tell the workers what to do next. So the robots on the production line in Spartanburg might someday be upgraded from handing out tools to giving instructions on how to use them.

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