Self-driving cars are still a few years away. Engineers have to teach them to drive safely in the environment dominated by human presence. However, in more closed environments, such as factories, self-driving machines can already be used to their full potential. For example, the Survival, a self-driving robot, is already working in Ford’s body and stamping plant in Valencia, Spain.
This robot got its nickname because of its ability to adapt to its environment and survive despite many obstacles in its way. It is able to go around unexpected objects appearing in its path and stop whenever it’s necessary. It is a rather small, but tall robot, developed entirely by Ford engineers, which is part of the reason why it doesn’t need any external guides or any other assistance to navigate the factory. Programmers provided it with the factory floor plan, which, together with many sensors, allows it to perform its tasks without interfering with other workers or factory activities.
The job of Survival is quite simple, but important – it is delivering spare parts and welding material to different stations around the plant. It has an automated shelf that has 17 slots to hold materials of different weights and sizes. At first its human colleagues were a bit suspicious of the robot working around them, but with time they started trusting it more and more seeing that it is completely capable of navigating around people without interfering with their work. Factory workers are mesmerized the the performance the Survival and how smoothly it operates. It is safe too – there is an emergency stop button on the robot, in case it makes a bigger mistake. Crucially, Survival is not here to replace human workers. Instead, it will make their work easier.
People are always suspicious with factory robots, because automation means that human workers can find themselves jobless. However, machines can take work that doesn’t require human intelligence and free up some time for people for less monotonous tasks. For example, the Survival can save up to 40-employee hours every day, but that doesn’t mean that 5 people will lose their jobs. Instead, operators can take up less monotonous tasks and use their time more productively. Of course, Survival is still on trial, but so far it is going rather well.
Eduardo García Magraner, engineering manager, at Ford’s plant in Valencia, said: “It’s been on trial for almost a year now and has performed faultlessly to-date. It’s become quite a valuable team member. Hopefully we can put it into full-time use shortly and expand into other Ford facilities”.
Robots in factories are going to be more and more integrated. Barriers between them and human workers are already disappearing. Survival is just one of many robots working in Ford’s European plants and in the future there will be even more of them. Slow integration allows ensuring safety, efficiency and trust of human workers. They are appreciating the technology making their work easier.