AP NEWS

‘Cobots’ and humans can work alongside each other

September 15, 2018

Using a device resembling an iPad, engineer Levi Armstrong taps out commands for the robot in front of him, simulating how the machine could pick up and move objects in assembly-line fashion.

Then he grips the robot, maneuvering its “hand” to trace where he wants it to go and what he wants it to do — a simple illustration of how robots and humans can work together to accomplish different tasks.

The so-called collaborative robot, or cobot, is part of a lab at San Antonio-based Southwest Research Institute designed to help manufacturers figure out how their human workforce and robots can work together to make products. While conventional robots are usually surrounded by cages or gates, walled off from human contact, cobots can work safely alongside people. They tend to be easier to program, cost less and operate at a slower rate than traditional robots, lab officials said. Even their appearance is different: the rounded edges and gentle grippers of the cobots are quite different from the hulking arms and claws of conventional robots.

“We want to make it easier for people to use and teach robots,” said Paul Evans, who directs SwRI’s manufacturing technologies department. “That’s the goal.”

There are different types of sensors in the lab, which can be used with the cobots to teach them how to perform more complex tasks, and meeting space for events. Companies can touch and feel the robots and see how they work in person, and SwRI has already hosted workshops and other events at the lab.

The launch of the lab, announced in August, was prompted in part by inquiries from customers, Evans said. They’d heard about a new class of robot and wanted to know whether it was a match for their operations and, if so, how to program and integrate it.

SwRI and the Texas Manufacturing Assistance Center, or TMAC, are working together to educate manufacturers on the cobots through seminars and other events, and to help companies determine whether a robot is a good fit for their operations. There’s a risk assessment involved to determine what a manufacturer’s goals are and how they would use the robot, said Matt Robinson, program manager for the ROS-Industrial Consortium Americas at SwRI. For example, a cobot is better suited to lifting bags of coffee and moving them than cutting parts, he said. Then there’s the question of which kind of robot with what specifications would work best.

The lab also serves as a testing ground for the organization’s engineers as they develop software and work on research and client projects, and aids SwRI’s work on its robot operating system, or ROS. The system, an open source project, is middleware that enables application development for robots, Robinson explained. SwRI also supports the ROS-Industrial Consortium, an international group of organizations that use ROS software to develop industrial applications. The consortium helps determine the priorities and works with companies to address their needs, Robinson said.

“You get a better solution when more people contribute,” he said.

There’s fear that robots will take away jobs, especially as they become more advanced, but Robinson argues that the inverse is true of the cobots. The collaborative robots are intended to work with humans, and as with the engineer maneuvering the robot in the lab, people can use them to ensure variation and perform different tasks, he said.

“Someone still has to program the robot,” Robinson added.

Improving education and awareness about the robots among manufacturers is one of the biggest challenges the team faces, Evans said. The robots can also be costly to implement. The price of the robot is one factor, but a manufacturer may need other pieces like a base for it, and they also need to learn how to program it, he explained.

As the sector becomes more competitive and the labor market tightens, interest will likely grow, said Bill Rafferty, regional director for TMAC.

“With better tools you get a more successful economy,” he said.

miszler@express-news.net | @madisoniszler

AP RADIO
Update hourly