quantum technology

A new world-class European supercomputer inaugurated in Italy

By GARETH WILLMER

For decades, the arrival of robots in the workplace has been a source of public concern over fears that they will replace workers and create unemployment.

Now that more sophisticated, humanoid robots are emerging, the situation is changing, with some viewing robots as promising teammates rather than unwanted competitors.

Cobot colleagues

Take Italian industrial automation company Comau. It has developed a robot capable of collaborating with – and improving the safety of – workers in strict cleanroom environments in the pharmaceutical, cosmetics, electronics, food and beverage industries. The innovation is known as a “collaborative robot”, or “cobot”.

Comau’s arm-shaped cobot, designed for material handling and assembly tasks, can automatically shift from industrial to slower speeds when a person enters the work area. This new feature allows one robot to be used instead of two, maximizing productivity and protecting workers.

“It got things going by allowing dual mode of operation,” said Dr Sotiris Makris, a roboticist at the University of Patras in Greece. “You can either use it like a conventional robot or, when it’s in collaborative mode, the worker can grab it and move it around like an assistive device.”

Makris was coordinator of the recently completed EU-funded SHERLOCK project, which explored new methods to safely combine human and robotic capabilities from what he considered an often overlooked research angle: psychological and social well-being.

Creative and inclusive

Robotics can help society by performing repetitive and tedious tasks, freeing up workers to engage in more creative pursuits. And robotic technologies that can collaborate effectively with workers could make workplaces more inclusive, for example by helping people with disabilities.

It is important to seize these opportunities as the structure and age profile of the European workforce changes. For example, the proportion of people aged 55-64 has increased from 12.5% ​​of EU employees in 2009 to 19% in 2021.

Alongside the social dimension, there is also an economic benefit to greater industrial efficiency, showing that neither need necessarily come at the expense of the other.

“There is increasing competition around the world, with new advances in robotics,” Makris said. “This calls for action and continuous improvement in Europe.”

Makris cites the humanoid robots developed by automaker Tesla, led by Elon Musk. Wearable robotics, bionic limbs and exoskeletons are also being developed and promise to improve people’s abilities in the workplace.

Yet the rapidly advancing wave of robotics poses great challenges when it comes to ensuring that they are effectively integrated into the workplace and that people’s individual needs are met when working with them.

Case for SHERLOCK

SHERLOCK also examined the potential of smart exoskeletons to help workers transport and manipulate heavy parts in places such as workshops, warehouses or assembly sites. Wearable sensors and AI have been 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 performance has allowed us to see and better understand the human condition,” Dr. Makris said. “It allowed us to have prototypes of how exoskeletons should be redesigned and developed in the future, based on different user profiles and different countries.”

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

The range of participants allowed the project to tap into a wide variety of perspectives, which Dr. Makris said was also beneficial given the different national regulations on the integration of robotic technology.

Because of the interaction of these robotic systems with people, the software is advanced enough to guide “future developments on what kinds of functionality should be had and how the workplace should be designed”, said Dr Makris. .

Old hands, new tools

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

The project team developed an adaptive workstation equipped with a cobot to help people with assembly tasks, such as making a phone, a car or a toy – or, in fact, the combination of any set of individual components into a finished product during manufacture. The station can adapt the height and lighting of the workbench to a person’s physical characteristics and visual abilities. It also includes features like eye-tracking goggles to gather mental workload information.

This helps to better understand what all kinds of people need, said Professor Giulio Jacucci, CO-ADAPT coordinator and computer scientist at the University of Helsinki in Finland.

“You find interesting differences in what the machine and what the person should do, and how much the machine should try to give advice and how,” Jacucci said. “It’s an important job that comes down to the nuts and bolts of doing this job.”

Still, workplaces equipped with cobots that can fully exploit and respond to people’s mental states in real-world settings could still be years away, he said.

“It’s so complex because there’s the whole mechanical part, in addition to trying to understand the status of people from their psychophysiological states,” said Professor Jacucci.

At the same time, since new technologies can be used in a much simpler way to improve the workplace, CO-ADAPT has also explored digitalization more broadly.

Smart changes

One area was software that enables “intelligent shift scheduling,” which organizes workers’ shifts based on their personal circumstances. This approach has been shown to reduce sick leave, stress and sleep disturbances among social care and healthcare workers.

“It’s a fantastic example of how manageability is improving because we’re using evidence-based knowledge on how to have wellness-informed schedules,” Professor Jacucci said.

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

“Let’s say you need to collaborate with a robot in 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 core message of the project is that there are many opportunities to improve and expand work environments.

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

The research in this article was funded by the EU. This material was originally published in Horizonthe European magazine for research and innovation.


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