Collaborative robots (cobots for short) are popping up everywhere in the industrial space. It was even a popular session topic at this year’s Embedded Systems Conference (ESC).
Recently, imec and its partners have added to the man-machine conversation with a cobot named Walt. Working safely alongside humans, one of the project partners, Audi Brussels, has already put Walt to work on one of its production lines.
Walt began as a project referred to as ClaXon, which was facilitated by the imec.icon research program. The program aimed to develop new ideas and technologies to improve human and robot interactions within industrial production facilities.
Specifically at Audi Brussels, Walt can recognize its fellow human coworkers and accurately communicate that it has understood given instructions.
“We are at the dawn of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which is characterized by concepts such as automation, human-computer interaction, the Internet of Things, and cloud computing,” says Luc Van den hove, president and CEO of imec. “It’s a revolution that invites companies to fundamentally rethink their products, processes, and business models to deliver greater value.”
ECN had the wonderful opportunity to chat with An Jacobs, imec-VUB, to get an inside scoop on Walt, collaborative robots, and the future of industrial automation.
ECN: What was the initial inspiration behind Walt’s design and development?
Jacobs: This questions is maybe more for Jan De Coster, since he designed the robot head. From what I know, the ring around its head actually refers to one of the rings from the Audi logo. I’ll try to give an answer underneath from our perspective:
Researchers from imec-SMIT-Vrije Universiteit Brussel asked feedback from operators working at Audi Brussels about the early designs of the robot. Also, by running experiments with operators from Audi Brussels we learned which gestures are most desirable from the operator’s side.
Technical tests by RoboVision with working gesture recognition software further narrowed down which gestures were also technically feasible to use. From the living lab research, we also learned that younger operators help the older operators with making the gestures in such a way that it is recognized by Walt.
ECN: How does Walt improve upon previous human-machine technology in industrial environments?
Jacobs: Walt has gained his own little spot in the production team of operators and technicians at Audi Brussels. The workers are proud and feel special to be working with this robot, since facial recognition only allows workers from two specific teams (early and late shift) to be operating this robot. Walt is the first step of bringing robots closer to humans on the production floor.
ECN: What are the advantages of using collaborative robots alongside human operators?
Jacobs: Industrial robots traditionally work in cages. This means that robots and humans do not work side by side. In case the human needs to approach the robot, this is usually detected by sensors and the robot will not move when the operator is near.
Instead of replacing workers by human operators, collaborative robots allow us to take advantages of the strengths of robots and humans. While collaborative robots can do very repetitive tasks, human operators can perform tasks that are very difficult to program. In the case of Walt, the robot is used to ensure a more consistent amount of glue is applied to car parts, while the operators still take the parts with glue and stick them to the cars.
ECN: Where do you feel the future of industrial automation is headed?
Jacobs: Once the demand for collaborative robots increases, it will hopefully also decrease the costs for SMEs to implement such robots in the production lines. Future research with using cheaper but good performing sensors, can hopefully also help decrease the price of collaborative robots, since they usually require a lot of sensors.
At the moment there are many barriers for adopting such collaborative robots, including unclear safety regulations and high implementation costs. For example, the cost and effort of adhering to safety guidelines (e.g. placing sensors that detect human presence) can be so high that robot integrators might prefer placing a collaborative robot in a cage. We hope to find more use cases for human-robot collaboration that really take advantages of strengths of humans and robots.
Filed Under: Industrial automation