Making workplace inclusion possible through robotics

Robots are already becoming widely established in German factories. But how can companies be sure to split the work between people and robots such that human workers don’t lose out on the desirable tasks? An event marking the start of the AQUIAS project showcased approaches to guaranteeing quality of work for manufacturing employees, including those with severe disabilities.


Foto: robot helps at workplace

Working with robots is supposed to be appealing for manufacturing employees, including people with severe disabilities; © Robert Bosch GmbH

The new dimension of collaboration between humans and robots can be measured in just a few centimeters: the latest generation of high- precision sensors tells the robotic arms of today’s manufacturing assistants to stop whenever a person gets near. This happens so fast and so reliably that the otherwise standard safety barrier can be dispensed with. And it is this level of safety that makes it possible for people and machines to work hand in hand, in turn allowing companies to completely redesign how humans and robots can share tasks.

To make human-robot collaboration appealing and accessible for a wide range of employee groups, the AQUIAS project is pursuing an unconventional path. In the first of two pilot schemes, Robert Bosch GmbH’s "APAS assistant" – a mobile manufacturing assistant – is being put to work at ISAK gGmbH, a company that gives assembly line jobs to people with all kinds of severe disabilities. "Our goal is to fine-tune the robots so that they can provide each employee with tailored support, thus enabling them to perform higher-value tasks," explains Fraunhofer IAO project manager David Kremer. This benefits both the employees and ISAK gGmbH and allows the company to use the higher returns to secure jobs for its workforce.

Fraunhofer IAO in Stuttgart hosted the AQUIAS project’s kickoff event on February 2 and 3, 2016. In addition to presentations on human-robot collaboration, a particular highlight was a live demonstration of the APAS assistant: the audience saw how an employee and APAS could work together on an assembly cell without a safety barrier.

To get the discussion on new ways of shaping human-robot collaboration underway as early as possible, part of Fraunhofer IAO’s work on the AQUIAS project is to develop alternative scenarios for future working processes. Comparing these scenarios sheds light on the various ways labor can be divided between humans and robots and allows stakeholders to discuss them. Doing so leads to conclusions about how the tasks people perform change, are expanded to include other tasks, or become superfluous. These changes are evaluated using human factors criteria in order to review the quality of the revised ways of working from a human perspective. Companies will be able to use the findings to develop appealing tasks for human-robot collaboration.

If people with severe disabilities are to benefit from future opportunities opened up by new robotics solutions, the way robots and people interact needs adjusting. Reexamining tools, data displays and working processes is just as essential as answering questions relating to user behavior and workplace safety. To meet these challenges, as part of the AQUIAS project Bosch is developing solutions that enable people with severe disabilities to work with mobile manufacturing assistants.

And analysis of the findings will also allow the project partners to derive ways in which robots can support employees with mild or no disabilities: "In AQUIAS, we want to learn from people with severe disabilities so we can improve human-robot interaction. What we’re doing allows us to take a much closer look at just what requirements a manufacturing assistant has to fulfill," says Bosch project manager Wolfgang Pomrehn.

ISAK is just one of Germany’s inclusion companies that for years have been bearing the brunt of considerable economic challenges. At these businesses, the customer structure, production orders and product requirements have been changing just as fast as at companies where people with severe disabilities make up only a small fraction of the workforce. To hold its own against competitive pricing, ISAK employs a key strategy: increasing added value.

"Using the APAS assistant within the AQUIAS project gives us the chance to increase our cost effectiveness, since it lets us cover more of the production process than we can today. We also want to offer our employees attractive tasks when working together with the mobile manufacturing assistant," says Thomas Wenzler, managing director of ISAK gGmbH. And improving the company’s profitability will serve to safeguard the jobs of manufacturing employees with severe disabilities.; Source: Fraunhofer-Institut für Arbeitswirtschaft und Organisation IAO

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