By Katrin Pudenz
The emergence of industrial automation and industrial robotics in the 1970s immediately caused the fear that robots would soon replace humans in production, Patrick Schwarzkopf, Managing Director VDMA Robotics + Automation Association, remembers. It was predicted that many workers would soon lose their jobs because of robots. Today we know that as jobs were taken over by robots, new ones were created for humans.
Robots are helpful and supportive in many different fields of use: Industrial robots for example are often used in places that are too dangerous or unacceptable for workers. They work safely behind fences to not harm their human colleagues, and they already made the worker's life a lot easier. Modern robots handle boring, monotonous jobs while humans are freed up for more challenging tasks. Service robots are designed to support humans in daily life; for example, they hover or mow the lawn. Others explore planets, disaster zones or even volcanos. Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) can be used to explore marine environments.
Teamwork is the future
The development of robots continues, and the replacement of humans by machines will not become a reality within the era of Industrie 4.0, the so-called fourth industrial revolution. "In fact, robots and humans will really become a team and work side by side - even without safety fences," says VDMA robotics expert Stefan Sagert. Robots will be able to make life a lot easier for production workers on the one hand, and on the other hand, they will be able to support people with physical limitations, or do the work that people would rather not do.
Robots make humans stronger
According to Patrick Schwarzkopf, robots and humans are not only coming together, in some cases, they are directly attached to the human: as an exoskeleton. "Let's take the Iron Man movies as an example," Schwarzkopf says. "His engineered superhero suit makes Iron Man very strong, he can fly and even defend the world from evil creatures." Within the industrial world, exoskeletons do not convert us into superheroes, but they can make humans stronger and enable them to lift very heavy components. Within the field of medicine, they enable handicapped people to do things they can no longer do, such as walk.
Biologically, exoskeletons are defined as the external skeleton that supports and protects a body. Technically defined, an exoskeleton is a wearable mobile machine powered by a system of motors, pneumatics or even hydraulics allowing limb movement, increased strength or endurance. "With regard to exoskeletons, we are still in a very early stage of development," says Schwarzkopf. "Right now, we see a market for exoskeletons in the field of rehabilitation and health. In addition to all of this, it will be interesting to see, what the future brings."
Human-machine collaboration is the supreme discipline
Furthermore, as Schwarzkopf points out, the development within "new robotics" - the human-machine collaboration, tends towards teaming up humans and robots and not towards replacing the robot. "In production for example, it needs to be sorted out, when it is useful to use the human, when to use a robot and when to use both a human and a robot," explains Stefan Sagert. VDMA member Yaskawa might have invented the term humatronics for this: it is all about applying technology for humans. Schwarzkopf quotes MIT Professor David Mindell, who says that full automation is not the highest stage of development. According to Mindell, the top level of development would be an intelligent combination of human and machine. "The interaction of those two - human and machine - is the supreme discipline," says Schwarzkopf.
VDMA Robotics + Automation | VDMAimpulse 01-2016: "Teaching underwater robots to swim like a shoal of fish" | MIT Professor David Mindell, Author of "Our robots, ourselves - the myths of autonomy", quote from the EconTalk interview
MIT Professor David Mindell says:
"The highest form of technology is not full automation or full autonomy, but it's automation and autonomy that are very beautifully, gracefully, linked to the human operator. Where the human can call for more automation - as the situation demands it - call for less automation when the situation may not demand it as much. The sort of perfect balance between the human control and the automation control. That’s really the sort of thing we ought to be shooting for."