Co-bots are filling a niche in industrial manufacturing, but they often put human workers at higher risks for injuries.
Is the Workplace Ready for Co-Bots?
Over the past few years, many manufacturing industries have added caged robots to their workforce to expedite production. Recently, many industries including hospitals, agricultural farms, and supermarket have introduced collaborative robots (co-bots) that can work alongside humans performing a variety of tasks.
Although co-bots are a novel innovation, co-bots in the workplace raise safety concerns. Industrial robots were not designed to interact with humans for a number of good reasons. They were designed to perform precise or dangerous tasks like lifting heavy objects, performing high-intensity welding, and working with corrosive chemicals that created dangers for human workers.
In 2015, a German worker at a Volkswagen factory in Frankfurt was killed by a robot. The 22-year-old production worker was grabbed by a robot that mistook him for a car part. The robot grabbed the worker and threw him against a large metal plate causing severe injuries. The worker died of his injuries. According to the accident report, the worker was inside the robot cage working with a team installing the robot when the injury occurred. A Volkswagen spokesperson stated human error was to blame for the incident, not a problem with the robot.
A recent MIT study showed that co-bots increased production and reduced idle time by human workers by 85 percent. Co-bots were used in a South Carolina BMW factory to perform repetitive tasks like applying protective layers to the inside of car doors. The study showed that the co-bots removed the risk of repetitive stress injuries for human workers without posing any additional risk on the assembly line.
Advocates of co-bots in the workplace say these machines are not meant to replace large industrial robots that need to be in a cage. They are smaller and more adaptable for work tasks that assist human labor. They still require proper training in automated tasks that require specific skills.
Currently, many highly specialized surgical tasks in hospitals around the country are performed by co-bots. They are getting tested for assembling auto parts, installing computer components, and grilling and flipping burgers in busy restaurant chains. Co-bot safety in the workplace is still under review, but it’s likely that co-bots will show up more frequently in U.S. industries in the near future.