Robots are joining the industrial human workforce in large numbers. But how do workers know if the machine beside them is an inherently-safe collaborative robot or not? Robotics expert John Henry champions for an industry standard color for cobots.
Green means different things to different people. To some it means environmental friendliness, to others it means money. To Fanuc Robotics, it also means collaborative robots.
Fanuc, one of the world’s best-known robot manufacturers, has always stood out with its bright yellow robots. Its cobots, however, have always been green.
Collaborative robots, for those not familiar, are robots that can work alongside humans without the need for guarding between them. There are several approaches to this including as elastic servo motors, sensors, slow speeds, padding and overloads. The first cobots were introduced by Rethink Robotics and Universal Robots in 2013. Since then most of the major robotic companies have introduced collaborative robots.
Some companies at Pack Expo 2018 were showing uncaged standard robots using special proximity sensors. These slow the robot as a human approaches and stop it when they get too near. While these allow some collaborative use, they are not collaborative robots in the sense of being inherently safe.
Even collaborative robots, depending on payload and speed, are not always inherently safe. As with any industrial machine, they must always be treated with respect.
I had seen the green Fanuc cobots before but, until Pack Expo, the color had not really registered. Thinking on it, I realized that it would be a good idea for industry to standardize on green for cobots and other colors for non-cobots.
According to the Robotics Industry Assn., more than 33,000 robots were shipped in North America in 2017. That’s a 9% increase over 2016 (and 2016 increased almost 30% over 2015). A fast growing proportion of these are collaborative.
As robot use increases, so does demand for workers, leading to a less experienced workforce. That is a recipe for increased robot/human accidents.
John Kowal, director of business development at B&R Automation, points out that it is not only robots. Other automated machinery is being built to be collaborative using similar principles.
Some of us connoisseurs can distinguish robots like fine wines. To most people, though, a robot is a robot is a robot. They can’t readily tell a relatively safe cobot from a standard robot where strict safety precautions must be observed to avoid injury. Awareness is always the first key to safety.
Ignacio Muñoz, director of robotic integrator AutoPak Engineering, agrees. “Attention grabbing colors will acknowledge the robot’s presence to workers and visitors alike, helping to respond appropriately to the work process,” Muñoz says.
To instill better awareness, the robotics industry should adopt a clear and visible way to identify collaborative robots. Fanuc, as they have before, is leading the way with its green cobots. Adopting green as an industry standard for cobots will be one way to achieve this.
This suggestion is not too far-fetched. If the coffee industry can voluntarily agree on green labeling to indicate decaffeinated grounds, robot manufacturers can standardize on a cobot color, too.
Known as the Changeover Wizard, John R. Henry is the owner of Changeover.com, a consulting firm that helps companies find and fix the causes of inefficiencies in their packaging operations. He has written the book, literally, on packaging machinery (www.packmachbook.com) and is the face and personality behind packaging detective KC Boxbottom, the main character in Adventures in Packaging, a popular blog on packagingdigest.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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