Industrial robots caused a revolution. They increased the productivity of factories and made products cheaper to produce. However, humans are still very important and they have to find a way to cooperate with robots. It has been difficult because of safety concerns, but Volkswagen has now demonstrated one of the possible ways to ensure safety while allowing robots and humans to work together.
Industrial robots have killed people before. They may experience technical glitch, people sometimes are not careful and robots simply do not understand what they are doing. It is a machine, it is not going to stop doing what it is programmed to do simply because you’re in its way. Or will it? Current robots already have sensors detecting people and making them stop immediately if there is a danger of contact. However, Volkswagen went a step further, creating this floor pattern, which has lit panels. As always, green means it is safe, yellow will slow down the robot and red will stop it abruptly – it all depends where the human worker is standing.
Leaving the red zone will make the robot continue its operation. And so humans can walk very close to robots as they are working together. Why is this relevant? Currently rigid barriers are used, which do not allow for real human-robot cooperation. Robots have the potential to reduce workload on humans by lifting heavier items into place, handing tools, preparing parts for assembly and so on. They can make the workplace safer by reducing cognitive load and stress on worker’s muscles. Barriers do not allow for any of this.
Safety is still a major concern, even though automotive industry is not known for being unsafe for its workers. Volkswagen demonstrated a prototype fit for use in series production. Safety zones on the floor are not painted on. Instead, they are projected and can be dynamically adjusted to suit the movement of the robot. This means that wider movement would result in larger red and yellow zones. Dr. Martin Gallinger, responsible for robot application development in Volkswagen Group Production, said: “In the next step, we will be intensively testing and optimizing the prototype together with our project partners, health and safety experts, and production employees. We intend to use their feedback to develop the system together to the point where it is fully fit for use in series production”.
Robots and people are going to work together – this is a simple truth and the future of the industry. Now we just have to make sure that it will be safe and production process will benefit instead of suffering from this cooperation.