Robots are well on the way to becoming ubiquitous in manufacturing, where they are having an impact on the work environment and on jobs themselves. Although some people have reservations about their use (because they can be seen to be replacing humans in the workplace), they can be greatly beneficial; for example, they can help create attractive jobs for people with disabilities to assist in their participation in the workforce.
AQUIAS, a project conducted by Robert Bosch GmbH and various partners, reveals the potential of robots. The project’s name is derived from its full title in German: work quality through tailored work-sharing between service robots and manufacturing workers with or without severe disabilities. It is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF).
“In the AQUIAS project, we want to learn from workers with severe disabilities about how to improve human-machine interactions,” says Wolfgang Pomrehn, product manager for APAS assistance systems at Bosch.
Making work more attractive
The initiators of AQUIAS are taking a remarkable approach. They have deployed APAS, Bosch’s automated production assistant, at ISAK GmbH, a company that employs people with a variety of disabilities – some of whom have an extremely limited capacity for work. APAS is used in the assembly process for sanitary fixtures.
Previously, a worker had to operate a hand-lever press up to 8 000 times a day to press intricate parts together, but now the robot has taken on this monotonous and physically demanding task.
This eases the burden on workers and allows them to focus on final quality control. One outcome of this project has been to improve the quality of work. Strenuous tasks fall away and there is more space for higher-quality tasks and direct person-to-person communication.
“What we’ve done is to have robots take on only those tasks that are physically demanding for people. All other work tasks, such as work-step preparation or quality control, are still performed by people, which ensures that their jobs are full of variety,” says David Kremer of the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering IAO, who is coordinating the project.
Tailoring robotics solutions to individual needs
To enable ISAK GmbH to implement this pioneering robotics technology, Bosch adjusted the workplace to suit the manufacturing environment and the various needs of the workforce. This called for a reconfiguration of the interfaces between humans and machines.
The robot can now flexibly adjust to different table heights and the sensor skin means there is no need for a safety barrier. If a worker comes too close, APAS automatically stops before there is any contact at all. This makes it possible to hand over workpieces safely and avoid collisions.
Learning from workers with severe disabilities
“In the AQUIAS project, we want to learn from workers with severe disabilities about how to improve human-machine interactions. A production assistant needs to meet a wide variety of requirements that are often different than the norm,” says Pomrehn.
He adds: “That’s why we develop tailored solutions and are constantly expanding the spectrum of situations and tasks that APAS can support.”
Bosch will use the results from the project to further improve the deployment of robots in production and logistics. The company plans to set up workplaces in its Blaichach (Allgäu) plant for workers with and without disabilities.
There the focus will be on how to handle heavy aluminium blocks designed for automotive manufacturing that need to be moved around for microscopic quality inspections.