Industry 4.0 and the Friendly RobotJuly 19, 2015 by Jennifer A. Diffley
Rethink Robotics is proving that robots don't have to be in competition with humans, but can instead form collaborative environments that increase efficiency while ensuring safer work places. This collaboration may be the key to industry 4.0: not eliminating the human element, but maximizing it.
Friendly robots aren't here to replace humans: they're here to work alongside them.
Humans' wariness of robots can feasibly be traced back to the Industrial Revolution, when behemoth mechanical monstrosities churned in warehouses, equally likely to sew a buttonhole as to scalp a hapless worker standing too close to the machine. Even now, when nearly every household owns a robot, we call them "appliances" to shy away from the negative connotations associated with the scientific term. In industrial uses, robots are still viewed as replacement workers used to eliminate human error and cut overhead. However, Rethink Robotics is proving that robots don't have to be in competition with humans, but can instead form collaborative environments that increase efficiency while ensuring safer work places. This collaboration may be the key to industry 4.0: not eliminating the human element, but maximizing it.
Rethink Robotic's Baxter is a two-armed collaborative robot designed for a wide range of manufacturing tasks and research applications. It is "humanoid" in that the square screen serving as its head displays a pair of blue eyes--disconcerting, perhaps, but certainly friendlier than the giant robots that must be kept in cages and are unpredictable enough to kill. Baxter is much less expensive, doesn't require trained engineers to control its operation, and is safe enough to work alongside workers. For smaller quarters, Rethink Robotics has a one-armed version of Baxter named Sawyer, which can handle precision tasks like circuit board testing.
The two robots are exactly where Industry 4.0 needs to be heading: faster, more precise, less bulky, and unthreatening. Human workers will always be a part of industrial production; the goal shouldn't be to replace them, but to alleviate safety hazards and streamline efficiency. For instance, when a worker requires a part, a robot like Baxter can be sent to quickly procure and deliver the part, saving time and preventing injury.
As factories move toward wholesale adoption of IoT into Industry 4.0, it's important to realize that humans are a part of the smart factory revolution, not an exterior element. Collaborative robots are the key to automated production that keeps everyone's best interests in mind.