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The New Coworker On The Assembly Line

For nearly a century, people have been fascinated by the concept of the mechanical man, or the robot. While the state of technology is still far from the science fiction version of a truly autonomous robot, automated workers are now an integral part of many manufacturing processes.

The first assembly line robot was installed in 1961 in an automobile manufacturing plant in New Jersey. However, today's robots represent several quantum leaps from that first robotic arm, and the latest manifestation are robots developed to work alongside humans on assembly lines.

Automating the Advanced Manufacturing Training Process

In spite of massive investments in robot assembly technology, humans are still preferred for many fine motor skill tasks. Additionally, robot installations normally require extensive programming, assembly training, and testing, and are often caged-off to protect their human counterparts. These factors mean they have not been practical for short-run manufacturing projects, such as those for medical devices and other specialty items.

To make the robot a more adaptable and affordable alternative for the assembly line, researchers at M.I.T. in Boston have created a new approach to their use. Made possible by recent advances in new sensing technologies such as improved touch and vision, these robots are designed to effectively train themselves as they work around humans.

The end result of this effort is radically new robots with new learning abilities that work alongside humans on an assembly line. Instead of months of expensive installation and training, these robots use highly sophisticated algorithms to teach themselves, learning tasks as they work with human coworkers.

Adaptable and Flexible

Julie Shah, one of the researchers and a professor at M.I.T. has added this flexibility to assembly line robots by using an innovative approach called cross-training. With this concept, the robot is paired to a human and adjusts its actions to the way the human does a task. In one example, the human sets screws, and the robot then drills them. They then switch positions, and the robot sets the screw, allowing the human to do the drilling. These breakthrough capabilities include adjusting to the human's methods and working up to 71 percent more efficiently.

By creating a relatively inexpensive and readily adaptable un-caged robot, the M.I.T. researchers have opened tens of thousands of jobs to the human-robot teams, including the crucial short-run manufacturing tasks. Manufacturers are shipping ordering hundreds of working models, and many assembly lines are now incorporating them into the workflow. Various models of these robots even incorporate monitors with eyes and the ability to show a range of emotions, adding to their acceptance by factory workers.

The success of these trainable, affordable workers is spurring additional work in this area and will play a role in adding more robotic co-workers to many manufacturing environments. If you are interested in assembly training for a manufacturing job, visit EIGERlab.