The most exciting thing happening now with industrial robots is the new intimacy of human and machine–collaborative robots.

Since I had other plans and could not attend the Rockwell Automation track at the EHS Conference coming up in Pittsburgh, Rockwell brought a piece of the safety symposium to me. George Schuster, a member of the global safety team at Rockwell and a robotics safety expert, discussed the current state of the art with me.

Schuster told me that Rockwell Automation is working with Fanuc Robots to change the way people and machinery interact.

There is much interest in the work in the user community to create manufacturing processes that leverage the strengths of machines (stability, reliability, strength) and the intelligence and adaptability of humans.

“In the past we engineered to keep them separate or at least arbitrate the shared space. Now we’ve found good benefits to engineer ways for people and machines to work together,” said Schuster.

Three things are enabling this approach. First, there are the standards. ISO 10218 and ANSI/RIA 15.06-2012 give guidance for designers. They also make it clear that thorough risk assessments must be carried out when designing these processes. Next, Rockwell is blending its safety technology with robotics. Then design approaches are looking holistically at what is possible with human and machine working together. Together, this is actually more of an application space rather than just technology.

Increasingly working on removing barriers between robotics and controllers, technology includes connectivity and safety–EtherNet/IP Safe; GuardLogix system; Add-on profiles in software-pre-engineered common data structure; part of the Connected Enterprise, includes connection of devices plus communication to upper levels to collect and analyze information–all working together.

There are four key current applications: ability to stop robot without killing power to allow operator to interact for instance load/unload, can quickly enter/leave area; hand guided operation, person can move/guide robot kind of like ergonomic load assist; speed and separation monitor, sensor system detects presence and position of personnel, modulates robot, can stop if person gets too close, coordinates robot speed and approaching person; power force limiting-this one is a little tricky, it’s hard to know where the robot will come in contact and what force is acceptable to the human, difference between soft flesh and hard place, etc.

This is all cool. It is ushering in a new era of manufacturing.

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