Slowly but surely, robots are being freed from their cages.  Small, agile collaborative robots – known affectionately as cobots – are today already working alongside human teammates in assembly lines, cramped spaces, and specialized factories.

Cobots are gaining momentum in the market because they are driving notable productivity and efficiency numbers.  As reported in IEEE Spectrum, an MIT study at a BMW factory showed that teams made of humans and robots collaborating can be more productive than teams of either humans or robots alone. It is clear that cobots can increase quality and improve productivity.

The traction is taking place primarily in discrete and process manufacturing, but cobots are also emerging in vertical applications in science labs, distribution centers and healthcare.  According to the International Federation of Robotics, more than 300,000 cobots will be sold worldwide from 2017- 2019.

A match made in heaven

Because they typically focus on smaller, lighter, and more intricate components, cobots are less expensive than their soloist counterparts.  They can be quickly programmed to handle repetitive tasks, such as packing and assembling, or tasks that are too challenging for human hands.  IEEE Spectrum highlights current uses for cobots such as machine tending, material handling, assembly tasks, packaging, counting and inspecting.

Of course, as more cobots are deployed, more uses will be discovered.

Cobots plus skilled people is a match made in heaven – as long as we can leverage technology to make sure that the people don’t get hurt.   According to Raconteur, standards for cobotics are very complex and getting safety right is crucial. If configured correctly, cobots are not inherently dangerous. In many cases, the issue is with the unpredictable human that operates alongside them.

If you were ever in the proximity of a robot, you may recall that you were reflexively on your toes and aware of every movement – just in case.  Now imagine working alongside the robot for an 8-hour day.  You need to not only be on high alert, but you need to concentrate on what your role is, what the robot’s role is, and you need to stay focused on your choreography, the constant give and take of cooperation.  With cobots, special training will always be required.

Safety by design

Of course, cobots have many safety features already built in.  Their moving joints are typically covered with spongy, shock-absorbing cushions that are designed to soften accidental impact and prevent pinching.  Sensors located across the cobot arms and base react to humans nearby, which helps soften contact or avoid it completely.  Many are programmed to stop moving completely when they are touched, and they are programmed to avoid wide swings and sudden moves outside of their work radius.

Having established that baseline, let’s consider two areas of potential safety hazards with cobots:

  1. A bad command sent to the robot, a programming error, or an error by the human collaborator, all of which could result in injury to the human.
  2. As with any industrial machine, there is the risk of being compromised over the Internet, with the intent to cause accidents that not only disrupt production but harm workers.

Fortunately, advanced technology already exists to protect cobots from both accidental and black hat-induced safety hazards. The Bayshore Industrial Cyber Protection (ICP) platform, for instance, manages and enforces safety policies for cobots by providing granular filtration of all commands coming into the cobot. The policy builder is flexible enough to calculate safe parameters for all cobot movements related to both automated functions and human interactions.

By inspecting these machine transactions, the Bayshore platform can identify instructions as either safe or not safe – and block those that are not safe.  To protect against both accidental errors and deliberate break-ins, Bayshore enforces safe policy ranges – both off-the-shelf and custom.  Bayshore policies are easy for administrators to learn and use and scalable enough to manage and deploy network and access policies across global networks.

Ready to take advantage of these benefits?

  • Visibility into robot commands and transactions
  • Increased worker safety, factory uptime and reduced downtime
  • Improved operational efficiency leading to increased revenue and reduced OPEX
  • System availability and downtime avoidance
  • Reduced risk of service disruptions

Start the Conversation! Images Courtesy of Rethink Robotics, Inc.