Meet Your Newest Coworker, a Cobot

By Mark Stone, Contributor

If you haven’t heard the term “cobot” by now, it stands for “collaborative robot,” and it may be appearing soon in a workplace near you.

In fact, cobots are already being deployed to help with repetitive physical tasks, similar to what’s happening in Amazon warehouses. What else can they do? How about flipping burgers, mixing drinks, picking plants, or even performing surgery?

Some of these robots may take a software-only form, such as a more advanced version of virtual assistants or chatbots. Others may be a mix of software and a physical body, built with robotic limbs or even a human-like exoskeleton.

While the conversation regarding robots in the workplace often steers toward job replacement, Julie Carpenter, research fellow in the Ethics and Emerging Sciences Group, a non-partisan organization focused on risk, ethical, and social concerns related to new sciences and technologies, says that the cobot is a very new—and very different— concept altogether.

Organizations looking to employ these cobots will need to consider how they will adapt to cultural, ethical, and behavioral norms. In other words, they’ll need to answer the questions: How will life at work change when robots are coworkers? And what does working alongside robots actually mean?

Doing the Dirty Work

According to Carpenter, while countries like Japan are more open to the concept of robot coworkers, in North America, it boils down to semantics and what type of robot we’re talking about. “With the cobot, the concept is pretty positive because it’s about collaboration and cooperation with humans,” she says. “It’s less about the message of replacing or working for humans.” While people are naturally uncomfortable with the idea of a robot replacing them in their jobs, they are increasingly comfortable with the idea of working with robots, Carpenter adds.

This notion is echoed by Joe Campbell, senior manager of applications development for Universal Robots, one of the largest cobot manufacturers. Campbell, with more than 40 years of robotics industry experience, has seen Universal Robots ship more than 31,000 cobots since the company launched its first in 2008. “We’re having a lot of success in solving business problems where cobots are literally working side-by-side skilled human operators,” he says. “The cobots are doing part of the task—typically the dull, dirty, dangerous, repetitive parts. Then you leave the skilled operators to do the finer work—the more value-added work.”

Over the next few years, finding ways to tackle those three Ds (the dull, dirty, and dangerous) of manufacturing will be critical. According to a recent study on the skills gap from Deloitte and the National Manufacturing Institute, between 2018 and 2028, over half of the 4.6 million manufacturing jobs created during this next decade will go unfilled.

More than half of the 4.6 million manufacturing jobs created between 2018-2018 will go unfilled, according to a recent study.

“There is a huge labor shortage and it’s demographic in nature,” says Campbell. “Baby boomers are retiring at 10,000 a day; millennials and gen Xers—they’re not attracted to manufacturing.” The Deloitte study confirms this, reporting that despite more than 83 percent of the U.S. public perceiving manufacturing as an important part of the economy, few (under 33 percent) recommend their children to pursue careers in the industry.

Training Robot Coworkers

Historically, the role of robot programmer would be the responsibility of a highly-technical engineer or a third-party company. But according to Campbell, some very small companies that would never have the resources to hire a robot engineer are now successfully deploying, operating, and reprogramming them.

The complexities in deployment aren’t what they used to be. One German startup recently raised almost $7 million to make programming robots as easy as wearing a jacket. The jackets, fitted with dozens of sensors, help its wearers program the robots from some of the most popular industrial robotics makers. Through online and in-class training, Universal Robots also shortens the learning curve of cobot fundamentals to a mere 90 to 120 minutes.

“After a live demonstration, engaging the line operators (with engineering and production) in an active review of the manufacturing process and work flow is very effective,” says Campbell. “The line operators often have the best view of how to improve a process, and they want to be part of the solution.”

Getting With the Program

A recent case is Darex, a small manufacturer in Oregon that wanted to drum up excitement around the idea of introducing cobots to the business. The company, which needed to automate its screw-driving and box-erecting applications, held a competition consisting of several rounds of robot programming, with the winner to be promoted to the role of robot technician. The victor, 26-year-old Brittaney Mohrmann, gained a new sense of pride and optimism for the job.

“Here at Darex, we strive for innovation,” Mohrmann says. “Cobots are innovative, so why not add them to our team? Collaborative robots have replaced different areas and positions in products that were ergonomically unsafe for coworkers to perform over long periods of time.”

“Cobots are innovative, so why not add them to our team?…Having cobots in our facility and working alongside them has diminished many coworkers’ fears of how ‘scary’ or ‘dangerous’ robots are.”—Brittaney Mohrmann, robot technician at Darex

She explains that the robots have opened up opportunities for her coworkers to obtain more technically engaging and higher-paying jobs within the line, and notes the company has experienced a surge in employee morale.

“Having cobots in our facility and working alongside them has diminished many coworkers’ fears of how ‘scary’ or ‘dangerous’ robots are,” she adds. “The cobots have drawn a lot of attention and are giving people a different outlook. Many coworkers are curious and have involved themselves in their endeavor, furthering their technical education and preparing them for future jobs.”

Making Room for Cobots

Because the concept of the cobot is still relatively foreign, how does the executive who may be sold on the solution convince his or her organization that cobots make good coworkers?

First is the question of safety, but according to Campbell, this issue is fairly easily overcome. “Bringing key managers, engineers, and operators face-to-face with the robots, and allowing them to engage in safety protocols in a live demonstration immediately builds confidence,” he says.

From Carpenter’s perspective as an expert in understanding the entire ecosystem surrounding this new notion of teamwork, managing peoples’ expectations about robots as coworkers is vital. She advises that training must include the usual components (such as safety), as well as providing clear explanations of the cobots’ abilities and limitations.

“Human workers have to negotiate and calibrate their teamwork with cobots on the fly, and learn to find a balance between over-reliance on the technology and not adopting—or otherwise resisting—using the technology at all,” she says. The dynamic is not all that different from human-human teams, she continues, in that clear roles and understanding of who has control of certain tasks and when is critical to effectively working together.

“Therefore, it is [important] to keep emphasizing—from introduction, through training, and throughout organization culture—that cobots have one role, humans another, and by working together goals can more effectively be achieved. By allocating tasks that fit the robot strengths to its role, human workers can use their expertise to guide the processes,” Carpenter explains.

“…Cobots have one role, humans another, and by working together goals can more effectively be achieved.”—Julie Carpenter, research fellow, Ethics and Emerging Sciences Group

The Cobot Business Case

Beyond easing organizational culture concerns, leaders looking to make a business case for cobots can turn to the scope of investment—and its return. Campbell reports that cobots from Universal Robots are routinely delivering payback in less than one year. “Payback accrues from multiple areas in the company beyond pure labor savings—each situation is unique,” he says.

The most common benefits of cobots, according to Campbell, include increased production, improved quality, better utilization of other capital assets from extended run times, increased production, reduction in overtime, improved workforce morale, and stronger workforce development.

“Still, HR is desperately trying to hire manufacturing professionals, and for the most part, struggling,” says Campbell. “Any activity that takes some of the pressure off hiring is most welcome by HR. As I mentioned, successful cobot installations make hiring easier.”

“…HR is desperately trying to hire manufacturing professionals, and for the most part, struggling. Successful cobot installations make hiring easier.”—Joe Campbell, senior manager of applications development, Universal Robots

Cobot Spies?

As with any new technology initiative in the data era, cobot adoption requires a hard look at privacy considerations. For instance: Is the cobot collecting any data on the employees?

“I would want to know, if a cobot was introduced to my workspace, are its goals aligned with mine?” posits Carpenter. “This is a common human-robot interaction ethical dilemma.” Furthermore, she advises businesses considering cobots to ensure the solution aligns with the business’ goals and that everyone in the company is aware if data is being collected, how it’s collected, and what the company plans to do with that data.

“For organizations, getting ahead of ethical data management practices by careful and ongoing consideration and development of clear, internally-enforced ethical framework, and communicating those concepts to users, will absolutely benefit everyone, short- and long-term,” she says.

Humans + Robots

Perhaps the most crucial principle about cobots is that they are specifically defined as either collaborative or cooperative, and we distinguish them from an autonomous robot. We also need to have clear expectations about what robots and cobots can and cannot do.

To experts like Carpenter and Campbell, the distinctions are important and will be increasingly significant. Until a day in which robots can think and act like us, Carpenter says, it’s almost impossible to get them to do those things that make us very human, like understanding social context, nuance, or art.

“If we can harness the things robots are good at and have them complement things that humans are good at, the whole premise of cobots is probably the direction of the future of robots—for the short term at least,” Carpenter says. “And you can see where it would be significant for the long term, as well. We’re going to be living with robots every day.”