Robots who perform tedious tasks instead of humans? It may sound like something out of science fiction, and yet in industry, it’s very much a reality. A cross between robotics, biomechanics and humans, cobotics is an emerging technology designed to automate a range of tasks via interaction between humans and robotics. As explained on the Actemium website, a cobot is basically designed to work by interacting with people, as opposed to a robot which works alone.
Patrick Mariage, head of Actemium Poissy (the industrial brand of VINCI Energies) is one of France’s pioneers in the field. So what exactly is cobotics? Will people be replaced by machines? We found out more from him.
=> Related articles on emedia: Cobots: man’s new best friend?
What exactly do you do?
VINCI Energies is unusual in that it’s made up of a number of independent structures, each specialising in a specific area. I run a company with 70 people that makes installations combining mechanics with turnkey robotics. We either start from scratch or with specifications drafted by the client and design installations. We also provide staff training. At the moment we’re just finishing an installation for a company that rents concrete formwork and is expanding its business. We provided them with a complete process, with robotic pressure washing booths.
We’re hearing more and more about cobotics. What exactly is it?
Cobotics is way not of replacing human workers but of providing them with a powerful tool to ease their workload by freeing them of arduous tasks, so they can improve ergonomics and avoid repetitive strain injuries (RSI). The cobot is meant to assist the operator and increase their physical capabilities. Humans work directly with the machine, or in a nearby environment in which they can interact with it if necessary.
=> Also on our blog: an interview with Exhauss, the world’s first company to sell exoskeletons for the workplace, a specialist branch of cobotics.
It’s important to draw a distinction between cobotics and collaborative robotics, which involves robots working collaboratively with an operator via a shared interface area, and is both autonomous and driven by the operator: using sensors installed on the robot, the operator can interact with or stop it.
“Cobotics aren’t meant to replace human operators, but help them.”
With cobotics, the operator always manually controls the cobot: it isn’t autonomous. It’s sort of the opposite of a robot: with a steering system, the operator describes trajectories whilst an interface with an embedded effort sensor generates a matrix that is then interpreted in order to establish the effort and speed generated in the sensor. We can then drive engines that track the operator’s movements, in non-follow-up mode, in terms of speed, acceleration and deteriorating effort. We can also add a sense of force feedback. That’s actually what we usually do when we implement a cobot: we deliberately increase the force feedback so that the operator can feel they’re handling the machine. We then gradually reduce the force feedback so that the operator has a self-stabilising system. It’s a really smart tool that helps the operators and makes their job easier.
How did cobotics come about?
In the nuclear industry, there was already, if not cobotics exactly, remote-controlled manipulator arms: the operator couldn’t be in direct contact with the tool, which was in a confined space because it was exposed to radioactivity. The software that was used to develop cobotics is based on algorithms that allow the arms to be remotely operated. They’ve been completely updated for cobotics.
We received our first order at the end of 2013. It’s fairly recent, but it was the result of a very long sales process. At the time, we were contacted by a company in the aeronautical industry that made aero-engine blades from titanium bars weighing up to 28 kg. The operators had a conventional pneumatic manipulator, with no speed control, just like the cobots we have now.
In the case of this company, the blacksmiths have to heat the titanium bars for three-quarters of an hour to 920°C. Once they reach that temperature, they have to be loaded onto the hammer forge in less than three seconds. That requires a repetitive golfing-type motion to grab the bars and get them to the hammer forge.
The client wanted to replace its pneumatic manipulator with a more recent, improved model. I had already met with a startup specialising in cobotics and designed portable tools to assist operators. In the course of our discussions we devised a cobot that would completely replace the pneumatic manipulator with an acceleration capacity that could transfer the titanium bars fast enough.
change MANAGEment is essential
To get people to adopt this solution, we implemented an iterative approach. As it’s a new technology, we had to convince Management and, even more so, the operators. But it’s difficult getting people to change when they’ve been working the same way for fifteen years. We got the blacksmiths directly involved in the concurrent engineering phase, i.e. getting them to help look for solutions to make tasks easier, whilst ensuring they’re in line with the process in place. The aim was to get them to agree to use the system.
The project then lasted about a year, including the trial assembly and sign-off phases, tests with the operators and subsequent improvements based on their requests. Once the system was implemented, the operators had to have a sound understanding of the cobot so they could convince their colleagues. To do this, we chose one person from each team to promote the tool.
how digital is boosting the transformation of industry
Is cobotics well-known in industry now?
Yes, they’re pretty well-informed. As part of the “Industry of the Future” programme, projects like the “Factory Lab” (a platform whereby industrials or academic laboratories can experiment with industrial process technologies) bring together people from different industries: automotive, equipment-makers, aeronautical, etc. They talk about common problems they have and develop unique solutions. To do so, they invest in research and set up working groups, which we also attend because we’re involved in this approach.
There’s been massive communication about it in France by the government but also organisations such as the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), to promote cobotics and collaborative robotics. But there still needs to be a change management policy with operators. At the moment it’s mostly the client’s R&D department that takes care of this. If you’re installing large volumes of cobots in factories, you need to get people on board: you need to change mindsets.
The aeronautical and automotive industries have been the precursors in this field. With events like the Smart Industries expo, which are becoming increasingly popular, cobotics is becoming more widespread and we’re hearing more and more about the operator interface: tablets, glasses, etc. – basically, anything that will enable us to implement collaborative maintenance.
To find out more about cobotics, watch this report by FUTUREMAG on Arte (in French):