Cobots and HMI: A Look at Industry 5.0
The emergence of collaborative robots (cobots) fitted with a suite of sophisticated sensors is ushering in the era of Industry 5.0 where humans and robots work more closely together to streamline the production process.
Factory environments are set to get smarter with concepts such as Industry 4.0 continually moving forward and evolving in different ways. Over the past few years, we have grown familiar with the idea of sensors, data processing, connectivity, and cloud computing combining to improve the efficiency of production facilities. Yet technology never stands still—so it's time to look at Industry 5.0, which is expected to deliver new benefits in areas such as mass customization.
What is Industry 5.0?
What is Industry 5.0 and what value will it deliver for manufacturers in an ever-more connected world? In short, Industry 5.0 reintroduces humans to the automation loop—allowing people and robots to work much more closely together. In a symbiotic relationship, humans will be able to work alongside a new generation of collaborative robots (cobots), adding value to products.
Figure 1. Industry 5.0 stands to depend on the increase of smart cobot use to keep up with quickly changing technology.
In this more multifaceted environment, production lines can become increasingly smarter, with humans being able to oversee much higher levels of product customization. That’s an exciting thought in areas as diverse as electronic devices and jewelry, where added touches to product finishes can result in higher consumer appeal.
A Look at Collaborative Robots
The starting point for Industry 5.0 is a shift in the relationship between workers and the automated systems that are now commonplace within manufacturing environments. Historically, robotic arms have been positioned behind safety cages, keeping humans out of harm’s way. But in the new world, a much closer relationship is needed—with lightweight cobots featuring a suite of positional sensors that enable them to react to the presence of a worker in a split second. The introduction of these smaller, faster, and more flexible cobots is fundamental to the progression of Industry 5.0, as it is their advanced safety characteristics that will allow humans to take center stage in a broader range of production processes.
Indeed, the performance of cobots has accelerated rapidly in recent years. Early models were small in size and designed to perform light assembly tasks alongside humans on the factory floor. These table-top arms would typically weigh around 10kg and have a payload of 3kg. This kind of size and capability made them work well in automated workbench activities such as driving screws.
Increasingly, cobots have become larger and more powerful, with the latest arms having up to five times the payload capability of their contemporaries. The increased size, and a more extensive range of grippers and tools, in combination with more intuitive programming, has opened up a broader range of applications to include heavy machine tending, material handling, packaging, and tightening screws and nuts. These arms can still be used in close proximity to production line employees, as they are installed with a complete range of proximity, distance, and position sensors.
What Industry 5.0 Looks Like Today
So where are these cobots being used in unison with humans to build new capability on the production line? The automotive sector has been at the front of the pack, with the PSA Group—whose brands include Peugeot, Citroën, Opel, and Vauxhall—using cobots for applications on its body-in-white assembly lines to tighten screws on both vehicles as they move down the production line. Other carmakers have been equally proactive when it comes to using cobots inside their manufacturing plants. BMW has applied them to perform some aspects of the riveting process for crash-can assemblies, which historically have been carried out manually. Automotive component suppliers are also getting in on the act, using cobots at the end of the line to perform critical inspection tasks. In automotive, it seems, new applications are being found almost daily, with a recent report by Kenneth Research predicting shipment and sales revenue from cobots in automotive growing at around 43 percent or more annually by 2022.
In other sectors, cobots are being used for very different kinds of tasks. In the metals industry, for example, they are being applied to carry out a range of polishing and deburring activities, performing what has traditionally been a labor-intensive task. According to a report by automation specialist WiredWorkers, cobots have been shown to polish both flat and uneven surfaces in a consistent and repeatable manner, with the force control easy to program, and with the ability to change set-ups for new products quickly. They are also increasingly used for the loading and unloading of Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machines, saving workers in the metals sector from having to perform what can be a physically demanding and sometimes dangerous task.
Even in the maker market, cobots are finding new roles. Additive manufacturing startups are beginning to use them to provide personalization of 3D-printed parts. Here, cobots can be used to help create different finishes and engravings—something that might prove popular in, say, the creation of genuinely bespoke accessories for consumer electronic devices. In the jewelry sector, artisans are looking at how cobots might be used to assist with the picking, placing, and embellishment of precious stones.
The Link Between Automation and Employment
Cobots have potential across a wide range of industries. And as the pace of adoption accelerates, the debate about what impact the role of automation will have in the factory environment is likely to be re-ignited. The prevailing school of thought has always been that the march of machines would eventually translate into widespread job losses across industrial sectors. But Industry 5.0 would appear to change that debate, with humans being re-introduced to the mix in a way that would see them perform more value-added roles. So perhaps more robots will not necessarily mean fewer jobs—just different types.
This assumption is reflected in the findings of a major report by the World Economic Forum, assessing the changing face of the global skills requirement by 2022. The report suggests that as automation becomes more sophisticated and more widely used across key sectors, some traditional roles will undoubtedly die out. By these will inevitably be replaced by other emerging disciplines focused in areas such as big data analytics, artificial intelligence, software and applications, and digital transformation. All of these new roles fit neatly into the world of Industry 5.0, underpinning the more collaborative nature of the human/machine relationship. Indeed, according to the report, this shift is likely to result in 133 million new roles, while causing around 75 million job losses—suggesting that increased automation will deliver a net benefit.
A New Era of Connected Manufacturing
We can see that technological progression within the industrial sector continues at a rapid pace. Industry 4.0 and Industry 5.0 might be buzz phrases, but they do encapsulate a genuine change in the way we design, build, and maintain products in highly automated environments. Increasingly, this shift will result in a more symbiotic relationship between machines and the human mind. And it is that intertwining of capability that holds the potential to create the smarter and more efficient factories of the future.
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