future view

Cooperation between humans and robot offers new possibilities

9 October 2017 • 4 min reading time

For many people the rise of robots seems like a nightmare scenario in which machines replace people. But increasingly, the sentiment is being expressed that while robotization may mean the loss of some jobs, it will also signal a change in the content of others. It will give rise to numerous new opportunities for companies, employees and for people who current have little or no employment opportunities. In addition, robotization will enable companies to deploy staff more flexibly.

Robots are extremely well-suited to taking over some of the tasks of employees, and to lightening the workload in other ways. Numerous new possibilities are offered in particular by collaborative robots (cobots), whereby humans and machine cooperate. Redistributing tasks makes it possible to organise work more efficiently: people and robot each do what they are good at and complement one another. This involves physical and cognitive tasks that people find difficult, whether in production environments or in, for example, sheltered work facilities. The robot cannot entirely replace the employee, but it can take over tasks that require a great deal of strength, precision work or monotonous work. In this arrangement, a lot of gains can be made through the distribution of work between people and robots.

Collaboration between people and robots

“The crux of the matter is that when we design robots, other new technologies and work processes, we should take much more account of people's capacities and behaviour,” explains researcher Professor Michiel de Looze of TNO. “This would enable us to achieve optimum collaboration between people and machines on the work floor. We have developed an operator support system that enables employees to assemble products quickly and without making errors. This offers a way forward for manufacturing and for people with different levels of education: from the highly trained to the uneducated.”

“As TNO, we are bringing together the capabilities of people and the technological possibilities. In this way, work that was never an option for certain groups becomes accessible”

Applying augmented reality to assembly work

Ruud Keulen, director of Operations at Thomas Regout, confirms this. The company, which produces high-quality telescopic sliding solutions, is working with TNO and some fifteen other partners in the European HORSE project, whose focus is the collaboration between people and robots for manufacturing-based SMEs. Within the EU project, TNO is setting up a Competence Centre, in which companies, end-users and universities are involved. Thomas Regout is taking on the role of field lab within the project. Various pilots have been planned, such as the use of augmented reality (AR) in the assembly of complex tools.

Projected work instructions

“To make a good job of the assembly, as an employee you need years of training and experience. With the support system developed by TNO, that is no longer necessary,” continues Keulen. “Your instructions are projected onto your work station: take this component out of that tray and attach it in this way. The system takes you through the assembly process step by step. It means employees can get straight to work, no training needed. We have tested it with TNO and it became clear that a completely inexperienced person could work just as fast and faultlessly as someone with years of experience. Consequently, we can use our employees much more flexibly and can reduce our training and production costs.”

Making work accessible

“As you can see, in our research we are involving not only the physical robot, but other technologies as well, like AR,” explains TNO researcher Gu van Rhijn. “The system Ruud Keulen is talking about helps companies to assemble different products quickly, faultlessly and flexibly. For the SME sector this means that people can be deployed flexibly and they will work quickly and without making errors. But it also opens up possibilities for people who have very limited prospects in the job market due to disabilities or a low educational level. They can now carry out complex tasks that would be otherwise be entirely out of the question. We are actually killing two birds with one stone, as it were. As TNO, we are bringing together the capabilities of people and the technological possibilities. In this way, work that was never an option for certain groups becomes accessible.”

“It became clear that a completely inexperienced person could work just as fast and faultlessly as someone with years of experience. Consequently, we can use our employees much more flexibly and can reduce our training and production costs”

Vulnerable position in the job market

Bruno Fermin of SCBM (Knowledge Centre and A&O Fund for Supported Employment), is working with TNO to find ways to increase the employment scope of people with disabilities, potentially using technological aids and resources. “We are very interested in TNO's operator support system and demo set-up for assembly work. Michiel de Looze recently gave a presentation here for a number of members of Cedris, the national association for supported employment. They recognise that this offers opportunities for helping people with a vulnerable position in the job market to find regular employment. We are now exploring the options by running pilots with a couple of sheltered work facilities to test this method in practice. They are willing because they and their clients want to know in which cases it is profitable and where it can fit into their existing organisations. The nice thing about this approach, I feel, is that people who carry out the same subtasks every day, like goods packaging and re-packaging, can now carry out complete tasks. Everyone benefits.”

Issues about people-robot interaction

Robots, cobots, AR: these are just a few of the multitude of technologies that TNO is researching in its exploration of new opportunities for making work more efficient while also helping people gain employment. Michiel de Looze: “We are concentrating on all kinds of issues concerning the interaction between people and robots. Just think, for example, of the remote control by people of robots that take over our heavy, hazardous or complex work. We are developing exoskeletons that assist people in carrying out physically demanding work. In the i-Botics open innovation centre we are working with the University of Twente on these and other robotic applications. We are testing new technological combinations of people-robots in the lab, but we are also providing concrete assistance to companies keen to apply these developments in practice.”

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