Steinbeis experts in Friedrichshafen use robots to provide assistance to people with disabilities
Modern human-robot collaboration makes it possible for people to work on tasks side-by-side with robots. But if you look closer and examine how collaborative robots (cobots) are actually used, it’s immediately apparent that until now, very few scenarios exist where this makes sense. The reason for this is that most potential tasks can also be carried out “cooperatively” – meaning that humans and robots take it in turns to work on something (such as a component). To identify genuinely collaborative scenarios, the Steinbeis experts at IWT Wirtschaft und Technik in Friedrichshafen decided to think outside the box and look into a new concept that would allow cobots to provide reliable support to people with disabilities. This would make it possible for robots to help assemble parts by compensating for physical shortcomings caused by disabilities.
Working with robots provides a number of benefits to workshops, as well as the disabled people who work in them. In 2018, there were 736 workshops for disabled people in Germany, employing roughly 310,000 people. Because most employers are currently unable to fulfill official requirements for employing people with disabilities, there is strong demand for integrative approaches. In 2016, 60% of German companies had to make financial amends because they failed to employ a certain percentage of severely handicapped people. They could limit such payments by integrating cobots into certain processes.
Robots are about more than hi-tech – they also need acceptance
This hitherto unorthodox partnership model raises some important questions, however. Can robots really provide disabled people with useful support, especially with different types of processes, or can they supplement certain processes? How do people with or without disabilities react to the idea of working with robots? Kris Dalm, a project manager at IWT, looked at these questions as part of a research experiment into “robots in collaboration with people with disabilities in industrial assembly.” The acronym for his project: ROKMI. He was actively supported by a project team consisting of Rohan Sahuji, Ankita Surgade, and Melanie Schirmer. “ROKMI is not so much about addressing technical issues, it’s more about topics such as acceptance and user-friendliness. There’s no point in introducing collaborative technology if you don’t consider beforehand whether the target group will actually take to the concept and whether they can work with it,” says Dalm, outlining the main emphasis of the project. He believes that cobots offer huge potential to create jobs for people with disabilities and make processes more profitable: “Imagine an assembly contract comes in involving ten tasks and for one reason or another, the people working in assembly can’t carry out one or two of the tasks. This is where it would be good to add a cobot.” Previously, workshops for the disabled were forced to turn down contracts, or supervisors had to jump in and do certain tasks themselves. It would now be possible to use a collaborative robot to allow disabled people to take on such tasks themselves; assembly contracts that were previously considered too challenging could be taken on without problems.
The project team invested a great deal of time talking to three workshops for the disabled – the Liebenau Foundation, the IWO integration workshops in Weingarten in Upper Swabia, and Lindenberger Workshops. It then developed a method that can now be looked into in more detail for ROKMI. The workshop directors expressed concerns about whether line supervisors at the workshops would be able to program robots themselves, even if they only require small adjustments. If they are unable to cope with reprogramming, they would have to pay specialists to reprogram the robots instead and not only would that make using cobots unprofitable, it would actually be unaffordable to them.
Live testing of cobots: test passed
Taking this concern as the starting point, the team decided to see what would happen if cobots were used to help people with disabilities by designing a research project broken down into two experiments. For the first experiment, they looked at acceptance and the user-friendliness of collaborative robots when working alongside people with disabilities. They found that operatives were quite happy to work with a mechanical assistant and even considered support from a robot a kind of “status symbol.” Unlike people without disabilities, the disabled operatives didn’t see collaborative robots as some kind of competition or something that would pose a threat to their jobs. Instead, they were actually grateful for the support.
The second experiment also looked at acceptance and the user-friendliness of collaborative robots, but the design was extended to also look at people without disabilities. In addition to investigating the same tasks looked at for the first experiment, the IWT experts also examined the extent to which people with no understanding of the technology would be able to carry out simple programming themselves. This would have been inconceivable in the past, because robots used to be much more complicated and even with specialist knowledge they required a great deal of effort to program. These days, many robots used in manufacturing have highly intuitive controls so they can even be managed by people without specialist knowledge. Most programming can be carried out via touchscreen – so it feels more like you’re using a smartphone than programming a robot. To gauge acceptance and user-friendliness, the team asked operators to complete a questionnaire. Most respondents had no problems whatsoever programming the robots. Each experiment involved a test group of 30 respondents in parallel to 30 respondents in the control group.
The result of the project is that collaborative robots will now possibly be put to use, for example in a production process used to make vegetable slicers in a workshop for the disabled. This process involves adhering a blade to a plastic part. The blade is extremely sharp and it’s not uncommon for workshop staff to injure themselves. This would be an ideal place to use a cobot, which could position adhesive on parts and repeat the process time after time. It would even keep protocols in case of product returns. The robot would also be able to join blades to plastic parts. The blade is difficult to handle and presents a danger to operatives, who would then no longer injure themselves. There are further potential application areas for cobots, such as lamp production, pick-by-light processes for mounting cables, the production of document shredders, and packaging tasks.