By Anke Henrich
The advantages are actually obvious. Autonomous robots travel independently through the factory and save people trips. They spot obstacles and avoid them all by themselves. They hold heavy workpieces while people position screws. They pass people materials, and so on and so on. Robots like this can work hand in hand with their human colleagues, because both sides have skills that complement those of the other. Cobots - collaborative robots - undertake difficult or non-ergonomic activities for people. By completing routine tasks, they give people the time for sophisticated tasks.
Cobots can be used in a huge range of fields, from support tasks without direct human-machine contact, to robots that can react to the movements of their human counterpart in real time. Artificial intelligence means that they learn more every time they are used. Given the shortage of specialist staff, the advent of cobots has come just in time.
But despite all the advantages, Europeans are increasingly skeptical of cobots - even though these flexible assistants make up only around four percent of the more than 381,000 industrial robots installed globally in 2017. A recent study confirmed this caution: When it comes to robots in the workplace in particular, the reservations of the more than 80,000 Europeans surveyed grew significantly between 2012 and 2017. To find this out, two psychology professors from the University of Würzburg analyzed data from the Eurobarometer, which is conducted in 27 countries. The researchers came to the following conclusion: "This should be a warning signal for policymakers and business. Negative attitudes to new technologies can be a sign that they may not be accepted later and will not be successful on the market." The German trade union IG Metall has also warned that staff could be cognitively overwhelmed, lose control expertise and sovereignty over their time and would - as transparent humans - become part of the data flow.
So what can developers and the purchasers of cobots do to increase acceptance?
Safety is the most important criterion. It is vital that no-one is hurt by a cobot. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has long developed safety requirements for human-robot collaboration.
But experts criticize that limits on strength and power, for example, do not go far enough. One of the most important requirements for CE certification for a complete robot application is an application-specific risk assessment. In this, the application - including all constraints and components, such as work area, tools, and workpieces, as well as all elements that could cause hazards, such as cabling and lighting - is considered. The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) underlines this issue in its latest position paper, in which it argues that the field in which humans and machines collaborate should be as small as possible and as large as necessary.
But even if sensors can limit the power and speed in order to prevent collisions, how fast is fast enough given a cobot's potential trail?
Safety requirements are not the only important aspect of human-machine collaboration. For Patrick Schwarzkopf, Managing Director VDMA Robotics + Automation, the way cobots are programmed will also be crucial to their future success. "It must be possible for an employee to control the robot on site in real time, as intuitively as an iPhone or tablet. Only then will cobots be seen as a real, fast help. It cannot be necessary to call a system integration expert as soon as a production step changes." In addition, companies should allow their staff to experiment with demonstration robots - to have fun without being under pressure to achieve immediate results.
After all, achieving acceptance for the new colleague is about more than just technology. Emotions always come into play when people interact with each other. The cobot manufacturers know that as soon as people think that machines can react emotionally, they see them as intelligent and are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. That is why some robots are already being programmed to orient themselves towards their human colleagues. They give clear signals before they act, so that people are not surprised. Their design is becoming rounder and friendlier. This poses a challenge for designers and developers.
The Swiss trade union "Verband Angestellte Schweiz" has already gone one step further. Unlike the machine breakers of the early industrial age, they attracted a great deal of media attention in December 2018 when they admitted the cute and photogenic robot Pepper as their first humanoid member. "We want to understand what happens when humans and machines communicate, so that we can be ready for the challenges of tomorrow, today," explains Managing Director Stefan Studer. He is in no doubt: The cobots are coming.