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23-04-2018 | Industry 4.0 | News | Article

Robots Save Jobs

Nadine Winkelmann

Human-robot collaboration (HRC) could save thousands of assembly jobs throughout Europe. However, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), in particular, have so far been reluctant to invest in partial automation. An EU research project is aiming to make the use of robot assistants for assembly work more commercially attractive.

Especially in SMEs, assembly tasks have so far mostly been carried out by hand. Only twelve percent of all industrial robots are used in SMEs. This is because robots are designed for industrial mass production, i.e. for large batch numbers and for a single task that often does not change for years. SMEs, however, depend on their flexibility. They manufacture in small batch sizes, offering numerous product variants, often even customised individual pieces. To remain competitive, many medium-sized companies have therefore relocated their production to low-wage countries, which has cost many assembly jobs in Europe. Partial automation could save the remaining jobs.

Improving human-robot collaboration

Cost-effective robot assistants for assembly workplaces were previously in short supply. The EU research project "Lean Intelligent Assembly Automation" (LIAA) is therefore aiming to make this more commercially attractive. After four years of intensive research and development work, the international team led by coordinator Martin Naumann from Fraunhofer IPA is presenting various measures:

Shortening planning time – to date, the planning phase for HRC jobs has often extended over several months. "Uniform Task Description" software can shorten this process to two to three weeks. This systematises the planning by simulating the resulting robot cells in a computer model. This facilitates collaboration between the system integrator and end user, avoiding misunderstandings and unnecessary additional work.

Avoiding unnecessary costs – too few or too many safety precautions when installing the robot cells in the assembly hall lead to unnecessary costs. Computer-aided risk assessment helps to avoid these costs: software checks the computer model of a planned robot cell for possible hazards, lists them in a table and states suitable safety measures.

Simplifying programming – until now detailed knowledge of robotics and of a proprietary programming language has been required to reprogram a robot for new tasks. "drag&bot" software enables even untrained personnel to do this. The software delivers ready-made function blocks that can be quickly and intuitively combined to create complex robot applications via a graphical user interface. This basic principle is also used in "PitaSC" software, which equips industrial robots with the skills of an experienced assembly worker in just a few clicks. CAD-based programming simplifies the parametrisation of various robot applications by automatically retrieving the corresponding values from the CAD model of a workpiece and supplying these values to the "Robot Operating System" (ROS) operating software.

Increasing flexibility – LP-Montagetechnik GmbH and InSystems Automation GmbH, two companies involved in LIAA, have designed a mobile robot cell equipped with interchangeable tools and safety devices. It can be adapted to almost any assembly workstation. When the mobile robot cell is connected to the power supply and the robot has been programmed, it supports the operators with their manual work.

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