Artificial Intelligence and Collaborative Robots: The Workers of the Future?

24 January 2024
artificial intelligence and cobots

Report by Danny Weller

Could your new breakroom companion be a robot? Cobots have revolutionized industries by enabling close collaboration between robots and humans, eliminating the need for isolating safety cages. Previously, working with robots meant keeping them at a distance, but today, specially designed robots can operate mere inches away from humans. The evolution of cobots reached new heights with manufacturers integrating artificial intelligence (AI) into their models.

Until this point, cobot technology has predominantly concentrated on singular functionalities, like aiding workers in tasks such as lifting and packaging products. The integration of AI brings forth numerous advantages for cobots, propelling the fields of AI and robotics forward. Here are the key benefits and the significance they hold:

Impact of Cobots
Image: Wikimedia Commons

AI Helps Cobots Perceive Their Surroundings 

 

The ability of collaborative robots to be aware of their surroundings stands as a crucial capability. Operating in buddy environments alongside humans, vehicles, and shelves stocked with products, these machines often assist in tasks involving object manipulation and tool usage. Consequently, these applications necessitate robots to adeptly detect obstacles within their surroundings and respond appropriately to ensure safety and efficiency.

AI serves as the driving force behind these functionalities. For instance, 3D machine vision, enabled by AI, empowers cobots to identify an object’s size, shape, orientation, and depth. This advancement significantly widens the scope of cobot applications. In some setups, companies deploy stationary collaborative robots, with workers partnering closely with robotic arms to execute repetitive tasks side by side.

Today, more decision-makers are opting to invest in mobile cobots capable of independent navigation within facilities, operating without constant human guidance. In such settings, these machines must adeptly adapt to dynamically changing environments. They’re programmed to adjust speed when encountering humans in their path or maneuver around obstacles autonomously. Some are even equipped to self-monitor battery levels and return to designated charging stations as required.

AI plays a crucial role in making cobots well-suited for operation in busy environments, ensuring their safe and efficient navigation without disruptions that could impede workflows. Moreover, artificial intelligence simplifies the process for users to instruct cobots about their surroundings. Once the machine has mapped its environment, it can adeptly adapt to minor changes without requiring retraining.

digital lean
Image: Simon Kadula

AI Enables Cobots to Work Productively  

 

Many people worry that robots will take over their jobs. Indeed, some robotics can do advanced manufacturing tasks, such as welding. However, what often happens when company leaders purchase AI-powered cobots is that those machines supplement what people do, creating overall better outcomes.  

Consider the results of a study that created three teams to do transport-related tasks. One group was all robots, another was all humans and the third was a mix of both. The results showed that the mixed team coordinated their processes most effectively, resulting in the best efficiency and fewer accidents. 

Cobots require careful initial programming from a human operator via a series of sensors that tell the bot where to go and how to operate. The working area must be analyzed and a path through it must be created for the cobot. AI cobots rely on advanced algorithms to work, and that often means the machines get better with use as the algorithms receive more data about what constitutes ideal performance. This efficiency and capacity for learning, and subsequently improving on what the cobot had originally been programmed for, could be enhanced exponentially by the integration of AI.  

Subsequently, manufacturing leaders often purchase robots to do repetitive tasks. One example came from a Dutch manufacturer of sinks and bathtubs. A representative explained that employees preferred not to do manual labor all day since it was boring. The company’s cobots sand products and humans switch out the sandpaper as needed.  

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University also developed an algorithm that could advance human-cobot teamwork even more. It’s a planner they call Act, Delegate, or Learn. The algorithmic planner studies tasks to determine how they should be completed. Should a robot handle the job, assign it to a human, or learn to do it? 

The researchers tested their algorithm by having robots push blocks onto a peg board or differently sized and shaped Lego bricks. The results showed that this algorithm could be particularly useful for manufacturing, assembly, package-sorting, or any other setting requiring humans and machines to frequently collaborate on their tasks. 

Impact of Cobots
Image: Wikimedia Commons

AI Keeps Cobots Safe Around Humans  

 

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, company leaders increasingly turned to cobots when their human workforce struggled to meet demands. Social-distancing measures limited shift capacity, exacerbating the surge in demand for specific products. As a strategic response, businesses opted to purchase cobots to supplement labor shortages and address production challenges.

With this increase in cobots and automated machinery, as companies increased production to remain competitive, human worker safety was a top priority. Equipped with sensors, these machines possess built-in capabilities to slow down or halt operations if humans are detected in their path. Additionally, their soft components mitigate the risk of injury or damage in case of collision.

While these robots already boast AI features ensuring safety, ongoing research explores how artificial intelligence can drive further enhancements. This continuous development instills confidence in humans working alongside robots across diverse tasks, promising increased comfort and safety measures.

Researchers at KTH Royal Institute of Technology researchers are striving to develop context-aware cobots capable of predicting a worker’s upcoming posture and understanding their current position, to better protect against workplace accidents. These machines utilize less computationally intensive AI, operating with smaller data batches compared to conventional machine learning models.

Simultaneously, at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus, researchers are pioneering robots that perceive environments akin to human capabilities. As Debasmita Mukherjee, a doctoral student researcher states, “It is incredibly important for robots in manufacturing to perform their tasks in the safest and most efficient method possible.” 

Their vision extends to a future where humans and machines collaborate safely beyond the confines of factory settings. Some are already exploring cobot use in construction sites and for perimeter-security tasks. Advancements in human-robot collaboration hold the promise of enhancing safety in such roles for all involved parties. As Mukherjee highlights: “To make these automated machines as smart as possible, we are developing systems that perceive their environments and carry out tasks in a similar manner as their human partners.”

 

AI Enhanced Cobots 

 

Advancements in artificial intelligence have been pivotal in enhancing the safety, capabilities, and versatility of cobots. AI empowers robots to handle diverse tasks, providing company leaders with the assurance that these machines can operate safely and efficiently alongside humans.

As researchers delve deeper into innovative uses of AI, we anticipate witnessing further remarkable achievements in the realm of cobots. Moreover, when designers, engineers, and other professionals apply AI to their cobot projects, they’re likely to uncover novel applications of this technology beyond collaborative robots, paving the way for intriguing possibilities in various domains.

Artificial Intelligence and Collaborative Robots
Image: Allison Saeng

Finding Value

 

Exploring cobots unveils a plethora of opportunities and technological advancements with tangible value for organizations. These services encompass design, implementation, and the integration of robotics, vision, AI, and change management processes for specific product engineering and operational applications.

Implementing cobots demands substantial investment akin to critical business endeavors. Value emerges from expanded applications and competitive advantages. Prioritizing cobot investments in high-value areas contributes to revenue growth, cost reduction, or risk mitigation. During the Covid-19 pandemic, an order-fulfillment company encountered a remarkable 30% surge in business within a mere 60 days. Leveraging collaborative robots resulted in a 50% reduction in the workforce needed to manage each order. Moreover, statistics indicate that substituting one key individual with a robot can yield a substantial 40% increase in overall output.

AI-driven cobots offer immense promise post-integration, yet success relies on comprehensive initial training. Human support remains pivotal for realizing cobots’ potential. Organizations must prioritize equipping their workforce with the necessary skills to harness this technology effectively and prevent potential misuse.

 

Artificial Intelligence and Collaborative Robots
Image: Getty Images

Will a Robot Steal My Job?

 

This is the question on many lips with the increasing use of AI in the workplace, particularly in the manufacturing industry. However, the development of AI itself requires many humans to train and refine AI algorithms. This leads to the creation of roles that haven’t existed until now. Machine learning engineers must design and oversee AI systems while AI ethics specialists ensure AI is deployed responsibly. 

The necessity for human workers in advancing technology is growing significantly. Moving beyond concerns about the impact of high technology, there’s a shift toward actively contributing to its creation. With AI, the ongoing demand for tasks like training, data management, maintenance, and handling exceptions is evident. Monitoring AI, ensuring responsible usage, and training it will likely create new job opportunities.

AI isn’t eliminating jobs; instead, it’s reshaping job landscapes and altering professional responsibilities. Its impact echoes the transformative effect witnessed with the advent of the internet. Much like the Industrial Revolution, where certain job roles vanished but were replaced by new ones, AI is ushering in a shift in the nature of work rather than causing widespread job scarcity. The Industrial Revolution brought forth a range of different employment opportunities, marking a significant change rather than a reduction in overall work availability.

Artificial Intelligence and Collaborative Robots
Image: Getty Images

What Does the Future Look Like?

The fusion of cobots with cutting-edge technologies like AI, large language models (LLMs), real-time vision, low- and no-code interfaces, and simulation drives substantial value creation. This convergence accelerates opportunities, witnessing the emergence of ecosystems, toolsets, and marketplaces established by startups, industry incumbents, and hardware enablers.

The rapid translation of research into commercial applications is truly impressive. Industries across the spectrum are actively exploring and piloting use cases, targeting the automation of tasks previously deemed unfeasible.

LLMs, a recent successful variant of AI algorithms, hold the potential to elevate collaboration between cobots and users. They empower cobots to engage in natural conversations with individuals. For instance, Dobby, a conversational service robot driven by GPT-4, exemplifies the remarkable strides in this field. 

This innovative work introduces a robotics platform integrating a conversational AI agent into an embodied system, enabling natural language comprehension and intelligent decision-making for service-related tasks. This integration seamlessly merges task planning with human-like conversation, facilitating interaction and intelligent behavior in the physical world through Dobby’s command invocation on the robot.

 

Conclusion

The integration of Artificial Intelligence and Collaborative Robots could potentially foster enhanced collaboration between humans and machines, boosting efficiency and instilling confidence. These versatile cobots assist humans by undertaking repetitive, manual tasks, enhancing safety measures, and refining data analysis and demand prediction. 

This dual role not only amplifies business efficiency and task accuracy but also alleviates workers from monotonous duties, elevating job satisfaction. Ultimately, this technology aims to undertake tasks beyond human capability, refining global supply chain operations.

Cobots are already revolutionizing industries, from manufacturing and healthcare to construction and training. AI’s capacity to unlock new levels of productivity, safety, and accuracy marks a significant leap forward, promising to redefine the realms of possibility.

 

 

AMFG DARK

AMFG is a leading provider of MES software for manufacturing. Our software solutions empower manufacturers, allowing them to manage their workflows and achieve streamlined, automated processes.

With over 500 successful implementations in 35 countries and across a range of industries, we specialize in enabling companies to successfully integrate our software for AM and CNC production, into their wider manufacturing processes and scale their operations.

 

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