When inventors Joseph Eagleburger and George Devol were discussing about science fiction novels in 1954, they initiated the idea of industrial robots. It took them six years to give shape to their idea and Unimate entered a secure place in the robotic hall of fame, as the world’s first industrial robot. In 1961, Unimate began working on the assembly lines of the General Motors.
At first, people looked on with suspicion on the safety issues related to Unimate. At the time, the only reference people had for robots, was the laser-firing robot from “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” a thriller from the 1950s. Now, 50 years hence, industrial robots are far less scary.
Traditionally, robots were constructed to work under restriction inside robotic work cells with physical barriers for the safety of human workers. However, modern robots work completely outside any cage. On the factory floors today, working safely alongside their human counterparts, you will find unfettered working robots that are termed collaborative robots or cobots. Nevertheless, no robot is entirely devoid of health and safety features.
Unlike in the past, today’s industrial robots or cobots are designed specifically to work safely around humans. In fact, now robots work hand-in-hand with humans on the same assembly tasks and it has been independently certified that this is safe. The two-armed collaborative robot from ABB Robotics, YuMi, contributed largely to this certification.
To prevent accidents with human workers, cobots utilize sensors installed on them. The sensors monitor the location of humans around them on the factory floor and react to human contact. Therefore, even if a person does come too close to the machinery, it simply and automatically shuts down. Moreover, cobots work with strength, speed, and force limited to avoid causing serious injury to humans if there is any contact.
Most cobots are simple enough to require practically no skill in programming them. Anyone, who can operate a smartphone, can program them to operate. In contrast, complex robots of about a decade ago needed a host of highly skilled technicians to program and monitor them while in operation.
Among the industries that are being transformed by such collaborative machinery, the most to benefit is the automotive industry. As such, this sector has always been at the forefront of industrial robotics. Automotive manufacturers have been using robots and robotic equipment since the 1960s, but a lot has changed since then. The competitive nature of the industry forces manufacturing lines to be highly efficient, flexible and more productive than ever before.
Not that all this means any advancement in robotics is a threat to human jobs on the production line. For instance, builders use a concrete mixer to help the bricklayer and not to replace him. In the same way, collaborative robots only assist workers on the assembly line and do not actually replace them. According to some experts, production line workers will ultimately use collaborative robots as helpers in the same way as engineers use computers to further their own work and make their jobs easier.