New world-class European supercomputer inaugurated in Italy

By GARETH WILLMER

For decades, the arrival of robots in the workplace has sparked public concern over concerns that they will replace workers and create unemployment.

Now that more sophisticated and humanoid robots are actually emerging, the picture is changing, and some see robots as promising teammates rather than unwanted competitors.

“Kobot” colleagues

Take Italian industrial automation company Comau. It has developed a robot that can interact with workers and improve their safety under strict cleanroom conditions in the pharmaceutical, cosmetics, electronics, food and beverage industries. The innovation is known as a “collaborative robot” or “cobot”.

Designed for handling and assembly tasks, Comau’s arm-like cobot can automatically switch from industrial speed to a slower speed when a human enters the work area. This new feature allows one robot to be used instead of two, increasing productivity and protecting workers.

“This has improved things by allowing for a dual mode of operation,” said Dr Sotiris Makris, a roboticist at the University of Patras in Greece. “You can use it as a normal robot, or when it’s in collaborative mode, an employee can grab it and move it around as an assistive device.”

Makris was the coordinator of the just-completed EU-funded SHERLOCK project, which explored new methods for safely combining human and robot capabilities from what it saw as an often overlooked aspect of research: psychological and social well-being.

Creative and inclusive

Robotics can help society by performing repetitive, tedious tasks, freeing up workers for more creative activities. And robotic technologies that can effectively interact with workers could make workplaces more inclusive, for example by helping people with disabilities.

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These opportunities are important to use as the structure and age profile of the European workforce changes. For example, the proportion of the population aged 55-64 increased from 12.5% ​​of EU employees in 2009 to 19% in 2021.

Alongside the social dimension is the economic benefit of greater industrial efficiency, which suggests that neither need necessarily come at the expense of the other.

“Competition is increasing worldwide with new advances in robotics,” Makris said. “This calls for action and continuous improvement in Europe.”

Makris cites humanoid robots being developed by Elon Musk’s Tesla. Wearable robotics, bionic limbs and exoskeleton suits are also being developed, promising to enhance human capabilities in the workplace.

However, the rapidly growing wave of robotics poses major challenges to ensure their effective integration into the workplace and to meet the individual needs of people while working with them.

SHERLOCK case

SHERLOCK also explored the potential of smart exoskeletons to help workers transport and handle heavy parts in areas such as workshops, warehouses or assembly areas. Wearable sensors and AI were used to monitor and track human movements.

With this feedback, the idea is that the exoskeleton can then adapt to the needs of the specific task while helping workers maintain an ergonomic posture to avoid injury.

“Using sensors to collect data on exoskeleton activity allowed us to see and better understand the human condition,” Dr Makris said. “This allowed us to get prototypes of how exoskeletons should be designed and developed in the future depending on different user profiles and different countries.”

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SHERLOCK, which just ended after four years, brought together 18 European organizations in several countries, from Greece to Italy and the United Kingdom, working in different fields of robotics.

The range of participants allowed for different perspectives to be brought to bear on the project, which Dr Makris said was also beneficial given the different national regulations for integrating robotics technology.

As a result of these robotic systems interacting with humans, the software is advanced enough to provide directions for “future development in terms of the types of functions and how the workplace should be designed”, Dr Makris said.

Old hands, new tools

Another EU-funded project that ended this year, CO-ADAPT, used cobots to help older people navigate the digitized workplace.

The project team designed a cobot-equipped adaptive workstation to help humans perform assembly tasks such as building a phone, car or toy, or indeed, assemble any set of individual components into a finished product during manufacturing. The station can adjust the height and lighting of the workbench to the physical characteristics and visual abilities of the person. It also includes features such as eye-tracking glasses to collect information on mental strain.

It gives more insight into what all kinds of people need, said Professor Giulio Iacucci, CO-ADAPT coordinator and computer scientist at the University of Helsinki in Finland.

“You find interesting differences in how much the machine should do and how much the human should do, and how much the machine should try to instruct and how,” Jacucci said. “This is an important job that goes into the nuts and bolts of this job.”

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However, cobot-equipped workplaces that can fully tap into and respond to people’s mental states in real-life settings may still be years away, he said.

“It’s so complicated because there’s all the mechanical part, and also trying to understand people from their psychophysiological state,” Professor Jacucci said.

Meanwhile, as new technologies can be used in much simpler ways to improve the workplace, CO-ADAPT also explored digitization more widely.

Smart exchanges

One area was software that provides “intelligent shift scheduling” that assigns work periods to employees based on their personal circumstances. This approach has been shown to reduce sick leave, stress and sleep disturbances among social welfare and health workers.

“It’s a fantastic example of how performance is improving because we’re using evidence-based knowledge about how to create a well-being-informed schedule,” Professor Jacucci said.

Focusing on the individual is key to a future of well-integrated digital tools and robotics, he said.

“Let’s say you have to work with a robot on an assembly task,” he said. “The question is: Should the robot be aware of my cognitive and other abilities? And how should we divide the task between the two?

The main message of the project is that there are many opportunities to improve and expand the working environment.

“It shows how much untapped potential there is,” Professor Jacucci said.

The research in this article was funded by the EU. This material was originally published HorizonEU Journal of Research and Innovation.



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