Road to Industry 5.0: Is it possible to enhance efficiency in human-cobot interactions without compromising safety?

NewsOctober 11 2021

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Robots have been used in manufacturing since the 1960s, with the world’s first industrial robot deployed on a production line at a General Motors plant in the US which made hardware for automotive interiors. Traditionally, industrial robots were designed to be stationary and work in a single area of operation. They were also required to operate in isolation from human contact as their massive moving parts could result in injury or death for workers on the factory floor.

Today, with the advancement of industry 4.0 these robots have evolved into something new – collaborative robots. Collaborative robots or cobots are automated solutions that can work with and alongside humans in a shared workspace. As opposed to replacing humans, cobots are designed to assist them in carrying out dangerous, physically demanding or repetitive tasks, leaving the human workforce free to focus on higher-value tasks.

Even though cobots are intended to operate in much closer proximity to humans and are equipped with sensors in addition to force and power limiting features, there are still many situations where it is possible for human-cobot interactions to be unsafe. As a result, the development of safety procedures and guidelines remains a necessity. The “Being safe around COllaborative and Versatile Robots in shared spaces” (COVR) project, which is funded by the EU Horizon 2020 program, is one such attempt to increase human safety around cobots, offering a free toolkit for coboteers to determine how to test and validate safety for their collaborative robot application or component.

Current safety regulations dictate that a cobot must slow down or halt if a human being enters a zone around it. In most cases, this would lead to production loss, or at least, a lack of efficiency. To tackle this problem, leveraging the COVR toolkit AKKA joined forces with AKEOplus, a company specialized in automation and safety, to initiate the SESAMS project geared towards developing a generic, customizable collaborative AIV (Autonomous Intelligent Vehicle) with improved collaborative functions. SESAMS’ solution ensures better human / obstacle detection, and the development of collaborative navigational functions improves the robot’s efficiency, allowing it to avoid obstacles instead of stopping, in a way that guarantees human safety. The project used COVR procedures to ensure user safety, making it possible to convey constructive feedback to COVR on their procedures and tools.

AKKA devised recommendations and test plans which were used to improve and test the cobot developed by AKEOplus. These plans were written according to safety analyses carried out based on COVR protocols and current robotics regulations. In addition, AKKA developed two collaborative navigational functions for the cobot. The first one named “Stick-on-Track”, allows the cobot to follow an operator in a normally forbidden area, and record the path in order to mimic the operator’s movements and avoid potential undetected hazards. The second, named  ”Go-to-Goal”, allows the cobot to make smooth movements between two distant points, avoiding any detected obstacles along the path.

Ultimately, the SESAMS project should lead to improved productivity and fewer accidents caused by internal logistics operations. In a few years, most warehouses and plants will use cobots and human operators in the same space and time, thanks to adapted regulations and safety devices. COVR and SESAMS are two pioneers of this evolution.

 

This project has been funded by the European Union.