New world-class European supercomputer inaugurated in Italy

By GARETH WILLMER

For decades, the arrival of robots in the workplace has been a source of public anxiety over fears that they will displace workers and create unemployment.

Now that more sophisticated, humanoid robots are indeed emerging, the picture is changing, with some seeing robots as promising teammates rather than unwelcome competitors.

Colleagues ‘Cobots’

Let’s take the Italian industrial automation company Comau. It has developed a robot that can collaborate with – and improve the safety of – workers in strictly sterile environments in the pharmaceutical, cosmetics, electronics, food and beverage industries. The innovation is known as a “collaborative robot”, or “cobot”.

Comau’s arm-shaped cobot, designed for handling and assembly tasks, can automatically switch from an industrial speed to a slower one when a person enters the work area. This new feature allows you to use one robot instead of two, maximizing productivity and keeping workers safe.

“It has made progress by allowing for a dual mode of operation,” said Dr. Sotiris Makris, robotics expert at the University of Patras in Greece. “You can use it like a conventional robot or, when in collaborative mode, the worker can grab and move it like an assistive device.”

Makris was the coordinator of the just completed EU-funded SHERLOCK project, which explored new ways to safely combine human and robotic capabilities from what he saw as an often overlooked research corner: psychological and social well-being.

Creative and inclusive

Robotics can help society by doing repetitive and boring tasks, enabling workers to engage in more creative pursuits. And robotic technologies that can collaborate effectively with workers could make workplaces more inclusive, for example by helping people with disabilities.

These opportunities are important to seize as the structure and age profile of the European workforce changes. For example, the proportion of people aged 55-64 increased from 12.5% ​​of EU employees in 2009 to 19% in 2021.

Alongside the social dimension, there is also an economic advantage deriving from greater industrial efficiency, demonstrating the fact that neither of the two must necessarily go to the detriment of the other.

“There is growing competition around the world, with new advances in robotics,” said Makris. “This requires continuous action and improvements in Europe.”

Makris mentions humanoid robots developed by the Tesla automaker led by Elon Musk. Also in development are wearable robotics, bionic limbs and exoskeletal suits that promise to improve people’s skills in the workplace.

However, the rapidly advancing wave of robotics poses major challenges when it comes to ensuring that they are effectively integrated into the workplace and that people’s individual needs are met when working with them.

Case for SHERLOCK

SHERLOCK also looked into the potential of intelligent exoskeletons to support workers in carrying and handling heavy parts in locations such as workshops, warehouses or assembly sites. Wearable sensors and artificial intelligence have been used to monitor and track human movements.

With this feedback, the idea is that the exoskeleton can then adapt to the demands of the specific task, helping workers maintain an ergonomic posture to avoid injury.

“Using sensors to collect exoskeleton performance data has allowed us to better see and understand the human condition,” said Dr. Makris. ‘This allowed us to have prototypes of how exoskeletons should be further redesigned and developed in the future, depending on different user profiles and different countries.’

SHERLOCK, which has just concluded after four years, brought together 18 European organizations in different countries, from Greece to Italy and the United Kingdom, working on different areas of robotics.

The range of participants allowed the project to exploit a wide variety of perspectives, which according to Dr. Makris were also helpful in view of the different national regulations on the integration of robotic technology.

As a result of these robotic systems interacting with people, the software is advanced enough to give direction to “future developments on the types of functionality to have and how the workplace should be designed,” said Dr. Makris.

Old hands, new tools

Another EU-funded project that concluded this year, CO-ADAPT, used cobots to help older people navigate the digitized workplace.

The project team developed an adaptive workstation equipped with cobots to help people with assembly tasks, such as making a phone, a car or a toy, or indeed, combining any set of individual components into a finished product during production. The workstation can adapt the height and lighting of the workbench to the physical characteristics and eyesight of a person. It also includes features like eye-tracking glasses to gather insights into your mental workload.

This offers more insight into what all kinds of people need, said Professor Giulio Jacucci, CO-ADAPT coordinator and computer scientist at the University of Helsinki in Finland.

“You find interesting differences in how much the machine and how much the person should be doing, as well as how much the machine should be trying to provide guidance and how,” Jacucci said. “This is major work that boils down to the practicalities of making it work.”

However, workplaces featuring cobots that can fully tap into and respond to people’s mental states in real-life settings could still be a number of years away, he said.

“It’s so complex because there’s the whole mechanical part, as well as trying to figure out the state of people from their psychophysiological states,” said Prof. Jacucci.

Meanwhile, as new technologies can be used in much simpler ways to improve the workplace, CO-ADAPT has also explored digitization more broadly.

Smart shifts

One area was software that enables “intelligent shift scheduling,” which organizes work periods for workers based on their personal circumstances. The approach has been shown to reduce sickness absence, stress and sleep disturbances among health and social care workers.

“It’s a fantastic example of how workability improves because we use evidence-based knowledge of how to have well-informed schedules,” said Prof. Jacucci.

Focusing on the individual is key to the future of well-integrated digital tools and robotics, he said.

“Let’s say you have to collaborate with a robot on an assembly task,” he said. ‘The question is, should the robot be aware of my cognitive and other abilities? And how should we divide the task between the two?’

The basic message of the project is that there is a lot of room to improve and expand working environments.

“It shows how much untapped potential there is,” said Prof. Jacucci.

The research in this article was funded by the EU. This material was originally published in Horizonthe EU magazine on research and innovation.

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