How Co-Bots will work with Humans in the Digital Transformation

By: Sarah Boisvert

For anyone who is wondering how they will spend the copious leisure time that digital transformation technology is bringing to our lives, it may be disappointing to note that at least in the near future, robots will not be completely replacing humans on the factory floor.

For the past few decades, automation tools have added significant productivity gains as manufacturing plants go through a digital transformation that relies heavily on automation. Robots are ubiquitous in many applications for the automotive, medical device, microelectronics and other advanced manufacturing industries.

For example, laser cutting and welding machine tools are a standard feature on production lines and the fabrication of cars such as the Corvette depends heavily on robotic processes. But they cannot operate without the participation of human counterparts, leading to the more accurate term, Co-bots.

                                                                 Laser Robots on a General Motors Production Line
Photo: General Motors

Artificial intelligence and machine learning have progressed to the point that machines operate at a far more sophisticated level than ever before.

Drawing from research at leading universities, government labs and institutes, robots can perform many procedures that previously were only possible by humans.  However, dexterity of human limbs if hard to emulate, accounting for jerky robot movements that are prone to performance failure.

Furthermore, humans are still needed to design, program, maintain, monitor and all importantly, repair, automation tools.  At a recent SME Smart Manufacturing conference, I met a young engineer on the show floor whose job was just that: to keep the company’s robots operating in order to actively demo cool processes central to digital transformation.

Robots are ideal for the repetitive, uncreative tasks such as operating a laser welder or turning screws. In these structured environments, very little “intelligence” or autonomy is required once humans program the machines.

In remote locations such as space, robots can be maneuvered by people to perform specific tasks either from control stations on earth or via platforms like the International Space Station. Even 3D Printers that require specialized operation skills can be automated and controlled by trained workers on the ground to produce parts needed by astronauts.

Similarly, surgical robots can perform delicate procedures with the guidance of a trained medical professional.  Doctors are intimately familiar with the myriad of problems that can arise during surgery so they are quick to adjust parameters as the robots encounter real-life situations.

Robots have not yet advanced to the point of innovating solutions to problems or helping customers with unusual needs.  Critical thinking is a uniquely human trait and as operators, technicians and engineers work collaboratively with Co-Bots in the Digital Factory, innovation can flourish in the human problem-solving process.

Many successful robotic applications are being added to businesses of all types as companies make the digital transformation that brings global competitive advantage.

Today that often means an integration of automation with humans to maximize the benefits of both types of workers.

Drawing of Robots on a production line from a YouTube video

BlueCollar Workforce is further profiled in this YouTube video.

About the Author: Sarah Boisvert

Sarah Boisvert is a co-founder of Potomac Photonics, Inc., founder of the Fab Lab Hub, a part of the international Fab Lab network founded in the MIT Center for Bits & Atoms, author of “The New Collar Workforce,” and founding director of the North American Digital Fabrication Alliance.

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Robot Assembler Graphic Source:  Photo by Max LaRochelle on Unsplash