You probably haven’t seen robots at your place of employment yet, but that scenario could easily change sometime over the next five or 10 years. Robots are already performing on-the-job tasks alongside people, with robots’ assignments ranging from sanding down metal parts in Dallas, to working with road crews in the U.K., to prepping sushi at Colorado restaurants.
Most robot deployments today are happening at factories, yet these nonhuman critters are also starting to appear in industries including construction, food services, and retail, says Susanne Bieller, general secretary of the International Federation of Robotics (IFR).
What will this mean to people? Academic researchers are starting to look at the impact of the introduction of robots into the workplace. For example, one study found that while factory workers believe that robots can take away jobs, the employees also realize that robots can reduce human workloads. Appropriately, a tablet-equipped robot called Baxter helped the human researchers conduct the survey.
Job loss can be a realistic concern for humans, but at this point, that’s mainly for occupations where the worker carries out only a single job function, according to Gary Kuzmin, owner of All Axis Machining, a multidisciplinary metal fabrication manufacturing company in Dallas and also a co-bot user. Employees with multifaceted jobs get to cut out some of the drudgery and danger associated with their jobs while gaining more time to spend on more interesting (and safer) aspects.
At this point, it will be many years before robots can keep pace with humans. For example, some say robots still don’t have the manual dexterity to orient hand tools properly.
And robots might never be a match for people in communicating with humans. “Humans tend to prefer interacting with other humans, when given a choice. It would be the simplest thing in the world to ship a bunch of coffee machines to San Francisco and install them in an empty storefront with some chairs and tables, but nobody would expect this to be a serious threat to Starbucks,” notes Alder Riley, inventor of a 14-armed retail robot known as the MiniFac and proprietor of Ideastostuff.com.
In theory, at least, in situations where workers do lose their jobs, savvy employers who want to retain good employees can retrain those workers for other positions.
Are robots really our rivals?
Another study, conducted by Cornell University, found that when robots beat humans in contests for cash prizes, humans consider themselves less competent. The humans start putting in slightly less effort, and they end up disliking the robots.
“But people would feel the same way about another person who beat them out for a cash prize,” Bieller observes.
On the other hand, a robot is unable to “dislike” any contestant. Although robots can be imbued with amazing smarts through AI technology, robots don’t have feelings. “A robot can be programmed to ‘win’ against people in a game like chess, but it doesn’t ‘care’ whether or not it wins,” Bieller adds.
Different strokes for different robots
It’s hard to draw generalizations about robots—much as with people—because so many types of robots are out there these days.
Many of the early on-the-job implementations in full production environments, called industrial robots, are designed to perform specific tasks and do their work in caged environments physically removed from most of the human workforce. Typically, these industrial robots are deployed for repetitive tasks that would quickly become boring for humans, often in work environments with human-unfriendly hazards, such as harsh chemicals and fumes.
Technological improvements such as improved optical and touch sensors are making it possible for industrial robots to perform tasks like painting and welding to the same levels of humans or even better. Some of these robots can even sense—and step around—physical objects that stand in their way, Bieller notes.
Enter the co-bot
For other types of factory scenarios, however, robot makers are producing a modular breed of machine critter, known as the collaborative robot, or co-bot. Co-bots are well-suited to manufacturing environments such as machine shops, which juggle multiple types of manufacturing jobs for diverse clients, Kuzmin says.
Typically, co-bots are programmable to carry out multiple types of tasks. They come with multiple interchangeable attachments, or arms. Co-bots also include safety features designed to remove the possibility of doing physical harm to people. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO), in fact, has come up with a standard for co-bots that spells out those specifications.
Beyond that, some co-bots, outfitted with AI, are laboring at learning sequences of motions needed for completing certain tasks, such as pick and place, with the aid of “hand guiding” by humans.
Co-bots are also leveraged to carry out heavy-lifting tasks, removing the physical strain for human beings. And surgical robots enable doctors to accomplish what would otherwise be extremely time consuming or potentially impossible. The equipment can help surgeons perform minimally invasive operations and alleviate human fatigue.
Professional software developers are putting in considerable work on their underlying programming. Programmers also are creating point-and-click GUI mobile apps that enable manufacturing workers to easily issue commands while working alongside the bots on the shop floor.
Co-bots are showing up in more and more factory environments but mostly for evaluation purposes, says Adam Brown, a director at ProGlove. Brown is a source quite close to the emerging situation, because—although ProGlove makes wearable barcode scanners, as opposed to robots—the company sells its products to the same base of customers that are exploring the use of co-bots.
From what Brown has seen, many companies are now trying to figure out where co-bots might fit in their “tomorrow, five-year, or 10-year plans.”
Among most manufacturing businesses, co-bots are still at the curiosity stage, Kuzmin agrees. All Axis, however, is one machine shop that’s already moved into production with co-bots. Actually, since adopting the machines from Universal Robots, the company employs more people today than it did previously, he says. That’s partly because All Axis launched a second business, one focused on writing software to integrate co-bots with legacy machinery.
As for the human employees who don’t work in Axis’ integration business, they collaborate with the co-bots in the shop in a couple of ways. Because the bots are unable to swap out their own attachments, human “tenders” do that for them. Humans also use a tablet-based app to program and re-program the robots’ frequently changing tasks.
People in the shop are cozying up to the co-bots quite well, Kuzmin says. For one thing, they’re acquiring new and potentially more marketable skills in the company’s robot school and gaining paid practice on the job.
Another constructive use
While robots also present promise in the construction industry, robots used for this purpose must be both easily transportable and able to move around in open spaces. Therefore, early applications in the industry are not leveraging co-bots but rather a different type of machine, dubbed the mobile robot. Like conventional industrial robots, mobile robots are designed for highly specific purposes, but as their name implies, mobile robots are not caged up behind barriers in special areas of factories and kept away from humans.
TinyMobileRobot‘s robots are targeted at two types of outdoor applications: road surveying and construction and sports groundskeeping. On the construction side, the robots generally lay down the pre-markings road crews follow when repaving roads. In sports groundskeeping, the robots perform the monotonous task of setting and resetting markers on the field for lines—such as the 50- and 30-yard lines on an American football field—in between the goal posts.
The robots are small enough to fit into the trunk of an automobile and weigh in at under 40 pounds apiece, notes Bertel Kirkeby, marketing manager at the Denmark-based company. How, though, do road and groundskeeping crews keep the robots from going astray and wandering off into the street, the bleachers, or parts unknown?
Well, the robots are accompanied by tablet apps with remote control as one of their capabilities. Some of the robots also support GPS and other navigation technologies.
Tiny’s sports groundskeeping robot is distributed in the U.S. through Pioneer Athletics, an athletic field equipment company that supplies the bot to colleges, universities, and sports clubs.
In the construction and surveying industries, customers include Sir Lines-A-Lot, a pavement maintenance company in Madison, New Hampshire, and WJ U.K., a road marking specialist across the proverbial pond.
In recent gigs with WJ, the mobile robot has done pre-marking on road upgrade programs for highways such as the M4, M6, and M60. WJ’s managers were astounded by the speed and accuracy of the bot, while human co-workers appreciated the safety benefits, according to people present at the scene.
After all, pre-marking means walking about on the street near automotive traffic without the protection afforded by sitting in a vehicle’s driver seat while actually paving the road.
A Tiny robot was also used to lay down lines at airports throughout New England states, reports Chip Henry, owner of Sir Lines-A-Lot.
Robots in restaurant kitchens
Not all implementations of on-the-job robots are as seamless. In one famous example in the food service industry, after landing a six-month contract job with the CaliBurger restaurant chain, Flippy the hamburger flipper suffered a temporary layoff on its very first day on the job in March of 2018. The problem? Flippy was unable to collaborate smoothly with humans.
Much like the human “class brain” you might have known (or even been) in childhood, Flippy turned out to be just too capable to fit in well with the rest of the crowd. Folks who were seasoning the meat, adding the mustard and relish, and serving up lunch for customers couldn’t keep up with the speedy Flippy.
It later came to light, as well, that Flippy had been missing the target too many times when flipping the burgers into a tray, due to issues with its machine vision.
After a couple of months of staff training and robot retooling, however, Flippy returned to work, where it’s since been flipping up to 300 burgers a day at the restaurant chain’s Pasadena location. Flippy is still in pilot mode, but CaliBurger hopes to bring the robot to other restaurants nationwide when it is fully ready for prime time. The “smart” robot from Miso Robotics is supposedly able to learn from its environment and add new skills over time.
Flippy also worked as a fry cook at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles during the 2018 World Series. And in December of 2018, Walmart began testing the autonomous robot as a potential kitchen assistant for use in its delis.
On the other hand, implementation of two members of AUTEC‘s family of sushi robots at the Sushi-Rama restaurant chain in the Denver area reportedly went off without a hitch. Jeff Osaka, chef and owner of the five restaurants and his team of about 20 human employees have been working with the Maki Maker and Nigiri Maker robots for the past three and a half years.
In contrast to mobile robots, AUTEC’s restaurant robots are stationary. They sit where they are on a conveyor belt, uncomplainingly carrying out their preprogrammed assignments alongside people.
“The robots create a consistent product where human error could otherwise occur, whether due to lack of skill or the fatigue that can set in when the restaurant is very busy,” according to Osaka.
“We top the rice balls with slices of fish for nigiri and apply nori to the sheets of rice, which we can fill with our own custom ingredients. We truly have nothing but great things to say about working with our sushi robots. They don’t call in sick or take long coffee breaks. You could say they are model employees,” attests the chef.
Communications between the human workers and the sushi robots are rather limited, though, he acknowledges. “Most of our communication is simply to give them ‘life.’ We just power them on.”
More retail robots next?
Riley the inventor foresees a day when phalanxes of robots will step into the retail space, too. Robots are already leveraged for retail order picking. “As machine vision improves, item identification will become easier to package together with object manipulation, leading to more and more of the mundane tasks of retail being automated away,” he predicts.
Riley currently works inside a retail kiosk in San Francisco with the MiniFac he created. The multiarmed machine has printed out 3D objects for customers ranging from custom toys to prosthetic hands. Some of the retail robot’s other arms are dedicated to laser etching and CNC, for example. “We produce items that mainstream customers wouldn’t be able to create or afford without their own machinery,” Riley says.
“The MiniFac is a prototype, though, so I spend a lot of time troubleshooting communication with its sensors.”
If and when your own company prepares to bring robots into the workforce, what can you do to help support the effort’s success? Here are a few strategies gleaned from the pros.
“Workers need to have a realistic sense of what robots can do but also of what robots will never be able to do,” says the IFR’s Bieller.
“I highly suggest that companies dedicate serious resources to demystifying the robots working with their employees,” echoes Riley. “Your staff should see the robot arm in their work space as a tool made of a series of motors that has a certain range of motion and behaves in a certain way that helps their workflow, not a flailing tentacle of metal that showed up one day and will threaten their livelihood.”
Introduce the concept slowly
Making a sudden decision to purchase co-bots and then unilaterally announcing the move to workers the next day as a done deal is not a strategy that spurs enthusiasm among your human employees. Quite to the contrary, it could just stir up fears and resentment.
Instead, get conversations gradually rolling among employees about the prospects surrounding these technical innovations. Provide them with plenty of time to warm up to the notion, suggests ProGlove’s Brown.
You might want to hold “robot fairs” at work, for example, so humans get a chance to play around with the bots and experience what they’re like long before any actual co-bots are likely to arrive.
In this day and age, teams need not consist of people only. If you do implement robots, make sure workers can see how the company as a whole will benefit when staff members go along with the plan.
Incent the humans financially, too, if you can. At Axis, employees receive bonuses for working with the co-bots to meet productivity goals, Kuzmin points out.
Robots don’t care about winning, as we’ve seen, or money, but people do care about both those things.
Have fun with the machines
Gamification technologies for working with robots haven’t actually happened yet but are currently under development, Bieller says. “Still, I certainly wouldn’t recommend pitting humans against robots in any game involving cash prizes,” she quips.
Meanwhile, it certainly can’t stand in the way of people-machine camaraderie to humanize the robot by giving it a pet name.
At WJ U.K., for instance, the new mobile robot is nicknamed Eric. At a STIHL plant in Germany, workers for the chainsaw manufacturer affectionately refer to their in-house co-bot, manufactured by FANUC and used on a packing assembly line, as “the Hulk.”
Moreover, STILH reportedly involved packing-line staff in the development of the co-bot right from the start, giving them a strong voice in its design, ergonomics, and testing.
Inventor Riley says his MiniFac does not have a nickname but each of its arms does: “But that’s mainly because it’s much easier to say, ‘Betsy is acting up today; switch out her extruder,’ rather than, ‘The third from the left with the red and white case is acting up; switch out its extruder.'”
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