Collaborative robots to work alongside humans without need for safety cage
German industrial control firm Festo is to start rolling out an army of soft-skin collaborative robots (CoBots) that can physically interact with humans in a shared workspace.
The introduction of the technology follows a successful two-year trial of a powerful robotic arm that has been working alongside employees at Festo's plant in Germany without the need for a safety cage.
The arm is fitted with a suite of sophisticated sensors beneath a soft-skin that enables it to react quickly to the presence of a co-worker. This means it does not need to be fitted behind a protective guard, freeing up valuable floor space and improving operational efficiency and workflow.
Stefan Schwerdtle, head of global production at Festo's Scharnhausen plant in Stuttgart, said: “We see big potential for these kinds of robots in our plants. The success of the trial means we will introduce at least five more collaborative robots over the next two years.”
The CoBot has been used in the Scharnhausen plant to carry out the monotonous task of pressing cartridges into a central housing. A Festo employee working alongside the arm then takes the component to conduct more complex assembly work.
If the worker gets too close to the robotic arm, it automatically slows down. If the worker touches the arm, it stops working altogether, and has to be manually re-started. “It took two and a half years to develop the safety regulations to allow us to get this far,” said Schwerdtle. “The arm is now working everyday, and has already paid back our investment.”
By having no safety cage, Schwerdtle said CoBots freed up space and made production lines more efficient. “An equivalent robot with a safety cage would take up three times the space. And safety cages totally disconnect material flow in a plant.”
Schwerdtle said that Festo's workers enjoyed working alongside the CoBot, and had even given it a name. “They call it Usehi. It has become one of the team,” he said.