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The ‘cobots’ are coming. Is your IT team ready?

Cindy Waxer | May 17, 2017
These collaborative robots work alongside human employees, sending productivity sky-high. But IT teams must be prepared to take on complex programming, deal with connectivity issues and get used to sharing work space with 6-foot-tall machines.

 

Making room for robotics

Praxis also had to make physical changes to its workspace to accommodate its cadre of cobots. Because its cobots are cage-free and seated next to co-workers, Praxis had to take some additional security precautions.

"We deployed some very small diagnostic cameras to certain areas [of the plant] that weren't covered as a deterrent to prevent people from interfering with Baxter's operation," says Hager. These cameras also help the IT team diagnose performance issues. And a USB key with an embedded password is the only way workers can gain access to a machine.

Unlike Praxis, whose robots work side-by-side employees, Creating Revolutions' Manuel "is kept in a separate and secure room," says Rosenberg. "To access the robot, you need one of two keys, which only I and a manager have." Only by physically swiping this key against a barcode located on Manuel can the machine be activated. Cameras also surround the area for constant and recorded monitoring.

 

Safety first

But while cameras, passwords and barcodes protect robots from ill-intentioned employees, the question remains: What's protecting workers from their 6-foot, heavyweight colleagues?

Before installing a robot in a common workspace, Doyle says, "A risk assessment needs to be done to determine exactly what a robot will be doing." Within what proximity will a robot be working with humans? What safety features, such as sensors, will enable the robot to avoid physical contact with people? How can a robot be programmed to limit the force it uses to perform tasks?

By answering these questions, IT leaders can take steps to avoid personal injury. In fact, according to Universal Robots, whose machines are used by companies including Creating Revolutions, 80% of its cobots perform alongside human workers without safety caging, after an initial risk assessment is conducted.

Nevertheless, industry leaders are taking matters into their own hands. In February 2016, robotics experts published ISO/TS 15066, a set of safety standards for collaborative industrial robot systems in the workplace. Guidelines establish everything from minimum safety distances between man and machine to suggested maximum allowed speeds of operation. Interestingly, many of the standards are predicated on data regarding human pain thresholds.

"The fact is," explained Carole Franklin, secretary of ISO/TC 299/WG  3, in a statement, "when robots work alongside humans, we have to be very careful that the application does not put a human in danger. Up until now, robot system suppliers and integrators only had general information about requirements for collaborative systems. ISO/TS 15066 is therefore a game changer for the industry. It gives specific, data-driven safety guidance needed to evaluate and control risks."

 

The data deluge

Less easy to regulate is the sheer amount of data likely to be generated by cobots in the years to come. In the case of Creating Revolutions, Manuel provides a steady stream of performance and production data on components — bits and bytes that are automatically recorded every hour.

 

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