Decades ago, massive industrial robots started automating many jobs in factories, tasked with simple things like welding or painting that they could do faster and better than humans. But these robots are also loners. They were dangerous and operated in cages.
Now, at one of the world’s largest automotive engine factories, robots are starting to come out of their cages to work with people. Last week, the carmaker Volkswagen announced it has started up its first "collaborative robot" at its engine production plant in Salzgitter, Germany. The lightweight robotic arm is the first for the company that won’t sit in a cage. Rather, it will work in close vicinity of humans in the cylinder head assembly section and, with its "collaborative gripper," will be responsible for handling a delicate part called a glow plug.
The addition of the robot, called the UR5, will relieve two employees at the plant of having to stoop into a painful posture to insert the glow plugs into "scarcely visible" cylinder head drill holes. Volkswagen, in a press release, said the advance would release staff from "ergonomically unfavorable work":
"We would like to prevent long-term burdens on our employees in all areas of our company with an ergonomic workplace layout. By using robots without guards, they can work together hand in hand with the robot," said Jurgen Hafner, project manager at Volkswagen's Salzgitter plant, calling the UR5 essentially a production assistant.
Volkswagen isn’t the first company—or even the first automaker—to use collaborative industrial robots, but it is a relatively new trend that has followed a wave of advances in robotics hardware and software technology, specifically around movement, control, and safety. Universal Robots, the Danish firm that makes the UR5 and aims to "easily automate monotonous and laborious processes," says it is the only company to currently sell robotics arms that are allowed to work uncaged in an auto factory.
BMW is working with one too, says Ed Mullen, a U.S.-based sales manager for Universal Robots. "It’s a milestone in any automotive setting," he says. "We’re at the really early stages. The collaborative robot is just now finding some traction."
More human-friendly factory robots are at the early stages of finding their way into many kinds of factories. Boeing, for example, has been working with academic researchers on developing smarter robots that can help workers assemble an aircraft wing. In 2011, President Obama launched a national initiative to develop robots that are better able to augment human capabilities and work alongside people, in hopes of encouraging the return of manufacturing plants to U.S. shores.
But while these robots may offer economic benefits to firms and help workers in plants enjoy their jobs more and use more of their skills, there’s also a raging debate about whether a new wave of automation—in robotics, but also in software and computing—will eventually replace additional jobs in the wider economy. Time will tell, but for now, the UR5—which is a two-year pilot project—seems like it will really help a few employees at Volkswagen.