Robots are an integral part of the industrial operation, and as the fourth industrial revolution steamrolls ahead, they are part of the automation of more and more processes than ever before.
The reality is that robots cannot be kept apart from the human worker as in years gone by. In industrial operations it is becoming commonplace to see employees interacting with and utilizing industrial-scale and smaller, collaborative robots.
Collaborative robots are robots specifically designed for repetitive tasks, especially menial tasks such as picking-and-placing. The concern for those employed to do such duties is that they are now replaceable.
And robots are only getting smarter thanks to artificial intelligence.
The growth of automation
In the United States, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine have, at length, studied the effects of information technology and automation in the workplace. They realize that the rise of automation is an unstoppable force that is driving production up and redefining what the world considers ‘work’.
The group summed their research up in their white paper entitled, Information Technology and the U.S. Workforce: Where are we and where do we go from here?
Advances in IT are far from over, and some of the biggest improvements in areas like AI are likely still to come. Improvements are expected in some areas and entirely new capabilities may emerge in others.
These advances in technology will result in the automation of some jobs, the augmentation of workers’ abilities to perform other jobs, and the creation of still others.
The recent increase in income inequality in the United States is due to multiple forces, including advances in IT and its diffusion, globalization, and economic policy.
IT is enabling new work relationships, including a new form of on-demand employment.
As IT continues to complement or substitute for many work tasks, workers will require skills that increasingly emphasize creativity, adaptability, and interpersonal skills over routine information processing and manual tasks.
- Policy makers and researchers would benefit significantly from a better understanding of evolving IT options and their implications for the workforce.
The American Society of Mechanical Engineers, however, maintains that there will always be physical human input. They write:
“Most products still require some sort of human input in their manufacture. Some tasks require physical dexterity and agility but many others require the flexibility and intellectual reasoning which a robot is not yet able to supply.”
The necessity of retaining personnel alongside robots and within automated environments means that there needs to be increased cognizance of employee safety in the work place.
Safety and ethics
In a book by S.R. Fletcher and P. Webb they analyze the revelations from the 2015 International Conference on Robotic Ethics. They reckon that future robot design must factor in the protection of personnel. The writers go further, recommending that the robot operators receive thorough education about the machines so that trust between human and robot can be established. They write:
“The ethical implications of these new expectations have not yet been sufficiently explored and understood. It has also been discussed that, as a result of safety measures, manufacturing workforces are accustomed to a prevailing concept of robots in manufacturing as a hazardous and segregated from their workspace, but due to impending advances in human-robot collaboration workers will need to adapt their beliefs to accept and trust in system safety.”
Some of these steps are indeed being taken, as Engineering.com reported from a collaborative robot expo. They outlined to what extent sensory fail safes have been implemented into collaborative robots. With interconnected sensors, collaborative robots are now able to tell when a human is in its space, and can abort its operations so that operators do not get harmed.
The fourth industrial revolution will have a more subtle and potentially threatening impact on the future of the industrial operation. It will be responsible for the monitoring of both machine and worker - accumulating a great deal of data. This will include the performance indicators from both robots and humans. The results will clearly reveal which of these is working more efficiently and which is more disposable - from the company’s perspective and in terms of productivity.
Fletcher and Webb ask a very pertinent question about the interconnected, Industrial Internet of Things-esque - the performance monitoring that companies are beginning to engage in. They ask: “To what extent will data on individual performance be gathered and appraised?”
Companies, therefore, have a plethora of new ethical considerations that will form part of their company’s business human resources structure. Not only companies, this will also extend to governments. The European Union is on the forefront of developing standards for industrial robotics.
Safety standards for collaborative industrial robots exist and are constantly being updated. The current standard is named ISO 10218, which covers: “Safety of Industrial Robots” Part 1: “Robots” and Part 2: “Robot systems and integration.” In the coming months and years, more robotics standards will be embedded into law to ensure that the right steps are taken for collaborative robots and humans to work safely and in harmony.
Contentiously, one does wonder if the future will require this particular set of standards?
"The American Society of Mechanical Engineers." ASME.org. Web. 15 May 2017.
ENGINEERING.com. VIDEO: Collaborative Robot Safety with Immediate Contact Stop Features ENGINEERING.com. Web. 15 May 2017.
Isabel, Aldinhas Ferreira Maria, Joao Silva Sequeira, Mohammad Osman. Tokhi, Endre E. Kadar, and Gurvinder Singh. Virk. A World with Robots: International Conference on Robot Ethics: ICRE 2015. Cham: Springer International, 2017. Print.
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences The National Academies Press. 16 Mar. 2017. Web. 15 May 2017.