Connectingthe dotsbetween hr &technology


Working alongside a robot

28 September 2022

HR is not only about white collar-workers, and tech is more than AI. Engineer, researcher and robot expert Bram Vanderborght and his team at the BruBotics lab (Vrije Universiteit Brussel and imec) design robots that are intended to cooperate with human factory workers and make their job easier: “Not everything can or should be automated.”

Bram Vanderborght runs a lab of over 60 researchers and is in the middle of wheeling in investors for a large exoskeleton project: “Exoskeletons are an extreme version of collaborative robots, or cobots as we call them. An exoskeleton is a robot you put on, and it extends your muscular strength.”

Across industries, companies are looking into a way of creating more ergonomic labour conditions for blue-collar workers, Bram explains. And each type of movement is different. Painting ceilings with your arm over your head the entire day, placing new windows into cars; hanging beneath a train to fix or check-up on machinery, filling shelves in supermarkets or replacing drill heads on a marine platform, it all requires careful design.

Clumsy robots

Why do companies look for human-robot combinations? For many reasons it turns out.

“Take the automobile industry. There are regulations on how long a worker is allowed to perform a certain type of physical labour. Exoskeletons can keep these people healthier and reduce the pressure. When factory workers drop out due to injuries, it can be expensive. Planning schedules and output schemes have to be revised, it sets in motion a whole cascade,” says Bram.

Robots assisting humans can also be the more affordable solution sometimes. Bram explains how SMEs often prefer cobots operated by humans, with less complex programming routines. “And believe it or not, despite the spectacular videos you see now and then, robots still very much lack fine motor skills. So you can team them up with humans, to combine consistent product quality and a final artisan touch by a human hand.”

Here we are now, entertain us

However, sometimes cobots are installed to keep the factory floor attractive for new generations of workers: “Today’s generation wants to be immersed in technology. A mechanical environment doesn’t cut it anymore. On the other hand, these profiles don’t want to sign up for a desk job, where it’s all about the software. So the manufacturing industry is looking for a balance. That’s why I am confident that not everything will be automated. It will be rejected, and there are many examples where it simply is suboptimal to do it. People, for instance, are much better at understanding and interpreting the context, at detecting sudden changes in the environment. Or take construction sites, those are very complex environments for robots to navigate.”

Tech can also make training more effective and more fun. “How to train for a sudden fire break-out in the factory? By watching a short movie, after which you get to answer multiple choice questions? Or in augmented reality? Or let’s go back to the ergonomy challenge on assembly lines. It’s better to build a factory twin in the metaverse, and tinker with assumptions there. Younger workers will be happy to wander in that virtual reality,” according to Bram.

The genius of Elon Musk

Taking a step back, Bram is convinced of a cooperative future for robots and humans. “I feel companies are really rethinking the definition of meaningful work. Automating tough and unhealthy jobs away: yes. But putting the distinctive strength of humans and robots together will often prove to be the best solution, especially in an increasingly complex manufacturing environment. The economy promises customised products and it can be difficult to make these on a mass scale without time-consuming errors.”

Bram asks if we have already heard about the Tesla Optimus, the humanoid robot Elon Musk wants to produce in the very near future. “It’s partly an employer branding stunt I think. But he can pull it off, although not so fast as he claims. He has us paying for Tesla cars that feed and train his algorithms for free. That’s quite ingenious. We should ask for a fee (laughs).”

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