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Advancing Machine and Human Interaction for Manufacturing

Advancing Machine and Human Interaction for Manufacturing

Manufacturers are increasingly facing a dilemma. While automation has given us the ability to mass produce goods, it is also extremely challenging and costly to rejig a production line. You see. Though machines like industrial robots are highly sought-after for their superb strength and speed, they still lack the adaptability, dexterity and cognitive skill of their human co-workers. Furthermore, there is a soaring demand for product personalisation, which can only be fulfilled through greater automation flexibility.

Omron 3-i and its Interactive pillar

Enter Omron 3-i, a manufacturing concept to push the envelope for smart factory, build upon the three pillars of Intelligent, Integration, and Interactive. In this concluding instalment of the 3-i series, we will share insights on the latest collaborative robots (cobots). In particularly, how they can create a harmonious interaction between us and machines.

Cobots and Interactive Machine Operation

Cobots are conceived to operate safely alongside their human counterparts. Unlike most traditional industrial robots which are caged and confined within dedicated work cells, the smaller and smarter cobots can be deployed to support workers in their daily tasks. This can significantly minimise undue physical exertion, and concurrently, increase overall production output rate.

To minimise the risk of injuries for people around these machines, their designers have deliberately lowered the cobots’ power and force output, in addition to using sensors to both detect and avoid a collision. Some autonomous mobile cobots, such as Omron Lynx, even come with a dynamic route adjustment function, allowing them to navigate around workers, tight corridors and busy workspace.

Lastly, cobots are inherently easier to train and deploy, making them remarkably versatile and ideal for all stages of production. Some models can be configured remotely and learn via a demonstration, paving the way for a truly “plug and produce” manufacturing solution.

More interactive features for advanced cobots

Higher-end cobots also support a variety of software with added interactivity, further enhancing the overall appeal of this new generation of robots.

Interactive programming – programming software suite incorporating configuration and monitoring in a single package. Some of the highlights include syntax error check, graphical motion editor that accepts real-time modification, and simulation tool compatibility to greatly simplify programming.

Interactive machine design – advanced simulation software which can be invaluable during a robot’s design phase. Most notably for motion to accurately test and validate trajectories in 3D, simulating either a specific function or an entire program.

BMW pioneering human-machine interaction

BMW’s US plant in Spartanburg is its first production facility worldwide to introduce cobots back in 2013. The pilot led to the creation of a human and machine team, which worked side-by-side at the plant’s door assembly line. Prior to this, the workers had to be rotated every hour or two to prevent elbow fatigue. Four cobots are now used to perform labour-intensive and ergonomically challenging aspects of the task, improving overall quality and consistency of the finished products.

A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the BMW factory has further proven that such human-machine collaboration is more productive than teams consisting of either humans or robots alone, reducing workers’ idle time substantially by up to 85%.

More recently in 2015, the automobile maker has begun utilizing cobots to insert hard rubber plugs into hard-to-reach holes throughout the vehicle chassis. It has successfully tested these machines for other difficult assignments, too, and is likely to double or even triple its number of robots by fielding cobots alongside their traditional equivalents.

Interactivity: A win-win solution for manufacturers

The manufacturing industry is in a constant state of change, driven by both global digitalisation and disruptions at an unprecedented pace. We have reached a tipping point where standard automation can no longer meet the evolving market demands such as personalisation. What we urgently need is a paradigm shift to closer interaction between machines and humans, working side-by-side in a safe, efficient and collaborative environment.

Rather than displacing factory workers, their mechanised counterparts will take over more mundane and daunting jobs, freeing the former to reskill and move up the value chain. Interactivity, together with intelligence and integration, are building blocks of the next automation evolution. All these are encapsulated within Omron 3-i’s concept, which is the primary guiding principle for our robotics and industrial automation business. Contact us for more information.

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