In an age where technology is at the heart of virtually everything the possibilities are infinite. Engineers and scientists are honing their skills to bring us inventions beyond our wildest imaginations, and the COVID-19 pandemic further is accelerating this mission.
Collaborative robots (cobots) have cemented their place in the world of manufacturing – both locally and abroad. In fact, the robotics market expected to grow from USD 76.6 billion in 2020 to USD 176.8 billion by 2025 (Marketresearch.com). Adding to this is the power of human-robot collaboration which is estimated to be 85% more productive than humans or robots alone (ILP.MIT.edu).
James McKew, Regional Director of Universal Robots Asia-Pacific explains that new and exciting human-robot collaborations are now coming to light, and some of them are quite unconventional. “One such story is that of the cobot who learned to dance," he says.
“A recent story shared by Universal Robots tells the story of Dr Merritt Moore – a quantum physicist who combined her love for dance with her career to bring us a remarkable showcase of human-robot collaboration.”
Born in Los Angeles and now residing in London, Dr Moore ‘blurred the lines between arts and science’ by sacrificing neither. Dr Moore is a professional ballet dancer for the National Ballet, English National Ballet and Boston Ballet, and has also earned her PhD in atomic and laser physics from the University of Oxford.
“There are so many rigid stereotypes of what a dancer or a scientist should be, and this can be really damaging for both disciplines,” she explains. “I hope that the next generation of women will be inspired to defy expectations of how a career in STEM should look.”
A remarkable example of how Dr Moore herself defied these expectations in more interdisciplinary ways than anyone could imagine, is her pas de deux with a UR10e cobot, fondly named “Baryshnibot” by her Instagram followers.
The unusual partnership began in Oslo where Dr Moore was performing Swan Lake and La Bayadere with the Norwegian National Ballet.
Through mutual friends she met Silje Gabrielsen - senior designer and co-founder of Hiro Futures - a human-robot interaction start-up based in the Norwegian capital. “We research artificial social skills in robotics,” says Gabrielsen.
“Today’s robots are still lacking several skills to properly collaborate in non-industrial settings. Instead of simply using a screen or additional hardware to communicate and interact with humans, we want to use a more intuitive communication system; body language.”
When she heard that Dr Moore was both a professional ballet dancer and an astrophysicist with a keen interest in robotics, she felt there was a perfect match. “We both thought this would be an amazing opportunity to explore these interactions and movements further.”
Dr Moore was first loaned a UR5e robot and later a UR10e through a Universal Robot distributor to assist with more reach.
As lockdown continued, Baryshnibot became Dr Moore’s dubious dance partner. Whilst Baryshnibot was originally designed for repetitive industrial automation tasks, Dr Moore has worked hard to ensure that the cobot can keep up with her complex dance moves.
“I chose a cobot from Universal Robots as I needed a machine with the ability to react safely and intuitively to human movement. It’s also great that the robot is so easy to re-program, which has made it simple for me to teach it new dances and styles relatively quickly. The cobot usually performs tasks with simple, repetitive movements such as screwdriving and sanding, so I had to think of ways to get the movements to line up perfectly with human movements.”
Into the Future
McKew says that the adoption rate of cobots is set to increase in 2021 in both Australia and New Zealand. “Whether cobots are used to automate a manual production line, speed up processes and improve quality, or get involved in weird yet wonderful human-robot collaborations, we expect a notable uptick in the year ahead.”
He adds that while these trends are applicable the world over, cobots are especially needed in countries like Australia and New Zealand where reshoring is currently taking place. “While social distancing, limited staff capacity, safety concerns, lights out manufacturing and reshoring are key drivers for the uptick in cobots right now, there has always been a need to automate. We are exploring the limitless potential of robotics with customers around the world, and it’s an exciting space to be in right now.”
Why Cobots? A Look at the Local Landscape
During a time where economies are battling with unemployment, automation can help create jobs in the manufacturing sector. “The availability of labour remains one of the biggest challenges in a post-COVID world," adds McKew.
“Labour shortages for lower skilled positions in manufacturing will further be impacted by migrant workers who are not able to return.”
The need to review operating costs is highlighted in the COVID world. Companies are looking to work “smart”. Increased safety demands, reduced access to skills and the high cost of poor quality are under the spotlight.
“Adding to this is reduced recruitment costs, consistent quality and enhanced productivity which makes the affordability and availability of cobots in the automation space particularly exciting right now," adds McKew.
“A recent Deloitte report highlighted the rise of automation in the manufacturing sector. It states that in 2018 humans carried out 71 percent of tasks, but this is forecast to drop to 58 percent by 2022. The report also found that although 75 million jobs will be eliminated, 133 million new jobs will be created.”
Quick to deploy and easy to programme, cobots complete repetitive and mundane tasks with precision, increasing quality and reduced overall operating costs. Cobots can work 24/7 with or without human intervention, they not only compensate for labour shortages but also make up for lost production by manufacturing products of consistent quality throughout the night and during historically unproductive times.