An emerging class of robots

By Karen White

Human-collaborative robots are an emerging class of robots starting to change how robots are utilized in manufacturing facilities. Collaborative robots are not necessarily new. Industrial robots have been able to collaborate with their environment for quite some time through sensors, switches, and guides. What is new is a class of robots with speed and power limits making it possible for robots to operate directly with humans, thereby making them human-collaborative robots. By limiting the speed and power of the robot, the risk to humans is greatly reduced due to the energy of the collision being low enough to not cause serious injury.

Two such robots gaining traction are Universal Robots and Baxter from ReThink Robotics. Human-collaborative robots are typically used in small-volume assembly or materials handling tasks. In these applications, the robot usually handles the highly precise, repetitive tasks while the human handles the tasks that require ingenuity or manipulation.

Advantages of human-collaborative robots include:

  • They can work alongside people without the safety issues of industrial robots.
  • The robots do the repetitive, tiresome tasks which reduces the rate of injury from repetitive strain.
  • Increased productivity.
  • The robots are easier to set-up and “teach” versus needing to spend considerable time installing and programming industrial robots. This makes the human-collaborative robots more efficient in changes from one product to another.

MIT research has shown that teams made of humans and robots collaborating efficiently can be more productive than teams made of either all humans or all robots. These experiments showed that the human-collaborative robot process reduced human idle time by 85%.

Another advantage of human-collaborative robots is they make an eye-catching recruitment exhibit. Surveys have shown that today’s youth do not express an interest in manufacturing careers. Having a Baxter robot at career and youth events is a great way to get today’s youth to take notice of the technology being used in modern manufacturing. For this reason, 360 helped to fund the purchase of Baxter for Hennepin Technical College and Central Lakes College. Baxter has been in such high demand that a second Baxter has been purchased and colleges are now starting to include Baxter in college robotics courses.

You can learn about this emerging class of robots through these two articles from MIT Technology Review and EE Times.