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At the Encirc plant in Elton, near the northern English city of Chester, molten glass globules slide down a chute and emerge as wine bottles or jam jars. At 20-minute intervals, the machines are turned off a section at a time so that a worker can safely swab the glass moulds with oil to prevent residue from accumulating.
But on five machines, robots clear the moulds while they are still running in a fraction of the time of their human co-workers.
“With the robots you can swab on the fly,” said Jimmy Graham, Encirc’s forming development manager. “We’ve taken that element of risk out of it.”
Encirc, part of Spain’s Vidrala group, is at the forefront of a new wave of automation that has seen co-working robots — or “cobots” — that can work alongside human workers. Specially designed to detect the presence of humans and work slowly enough to mitigate safety concerns, experts say they can work with, rather than replace, workers.
Mr Graham said that UK health and safety regulations had left the Elton plant less competitive than its counterparts in other countries, where humans are allowed to swab machines without switching them off.
But since the cobots were introduced, human workers spend more time monitoring operations and the company’s productivity has improved. The proportion of production lost per hour has fallen from 2.2 per cent on manually swabbed lines to 1 per cent.
The use of robots is governed by complex, internationally agreed rules that set out detailed safety standards. These have meant that they have been separated from workers, usually in a cage, slowing down their introduction in fields where they would need to interact with humans.
Currently cobots account for only about 5 per cent of UK investment in robots. “There are very few instances where they’re actually working outside a cage and actually working alongside people,” said Carl Diver, reader in industrial digitalisation at Manchester Metropolitan University.
Siemens Motion Control Congleton, an advanced manufacturing facility run by Siemens, has first hand experience of the challenges of introducing cobots. The company had hoped that a new, slow-moving robot arm would be small enough to operate alongside workers. However, a risk assessment concluded there was no certainty that it could work safely with humans because of a needle that applies glue to control panels. As a result, the device sits inside a safety cage.
Unions fear that automation and artificial intelligence will result in job losses, particularly for the low skilled. Kate Bell, head of economics for the TUC, the trade unions’ umbrella group, said that while the organisation was keen to see the potential for new technology to improve the productivity of work, “the key thing for us is that it’s done in consultation with workers”.
She added: “Are workers seeing the benefit of this?”
Experts say that cobots have the potential to reduce costs, improve quality and increase productivity without replacing workers. This is particularly important for the UK, which has suffered feeble productivity growth over the past decade.
“What cobotics is allowing us to do is to automate or semi-automate tasks that previously were regarded as virtually impossible to automate or where the business case didn’t stack up,” said Phil Webb, head of the integrated systems department at Cranfield University. “With cobotics, we can get those gains into a much broader spectrum of manufacturing processes.”
The ideal of human-robot collaboration is on display in a large hall on Cranfield University’s campus, where a huge robotic arm sits next to a half-built aircraft wing. A team led by Prof Webb developed the system for Airbus, the aircraft manufacturer, to ease the process of inserting slats into aircraft wings. The task demands human dexterity but currently requires the worker to bear the weight of each slat.
Prof Webb said the aim of the system was to allow humans and robots to focus on the tasks they were best equipped to undertake, with the cobot holding the slat steady while the human worker slotted it into place.
“People are good at doing complex tasks in unstructured environments; robots are good at lifting heavy things and holding them and positioning them,” he said.
Jeremy Hadall, chief engineer for intelligent automation at the Coventry-based Manufacturing Technology Centre, cautioned that there were limited applications for the devices.
“I think a lot of people are jumping on cobots as an answer to a lot of problems when a standard industrial robot might be just as good a solution,” he said. “There’s a degree of enthusiasm around them that’s not really warranted. They’re certainly a useful tool for a manufacturer. But they’re not the be-all and end-all, as some people are suggesting.”
Back at Siemens Motion Control, Carl German, strategic lead on digital manufacturing, is convinced that cobots will enhance the business and said the company was committed to introducing them.
“It’s about efficiency and throughput, essentially,” Mr German said. “It’s about making more in the same footprint. We’ll . . . see how far we feel we can push the standards whilst being safe and conforming to the law.”
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