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Supply Chain News: Ford Testing Collaborative Robots on Factory Floor

 

In Cologne, Germany Plant, Workers Put Shock Absorbers in Place, and Robot Does the Rest

July 20, 2016
SCDigest Editorial Staff

The term "collaborative robots" has emerged in recent years, referring to a new generation of machiness that can safely work right alongside humans, rather than being protected away in cages to protect employees from being injured on the shop or DC floor.

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Ford says the effort in its Cologne plant is connected to its adoption of the so-called Industry 4.0 Automation program being promoted by the government in Germany.

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Though there are a rising number of such robots, they have been in a sense personified by Baxter, the robot with a face from Boston's Rethink Robotics, a company founded by Roomba vacuum cleaner inventor Rodney Brooks.

Released with much fanfare in 2012, the Rethink robots have been a bit slow to take off, though in June came news that logistics giant DHL had ordered several of the Baxters and its companion Sawyer robots for testing in its warehouses on tasks such as packing and assembly. (See Are Collaborative Robots Ready for Prime Time in the DC?)

Now, auto giant Ford has just announced it is testing collaborative robots – also called co-bots – on the factory floor. The company has released video footage of the co-bots helping workers fit shock absorbers on to Fiesta cars in Ford's assembly plant in Cologne, Germany.

As the term implies, in this case the collaborative robots work together with humans on the line to ensure a perfect fit for the parts every time. Ford says that if the trial goes well, it likely would deploy co-bots in more of its plants around the world before too long.

"If we deem that it is efficient enough, we can take a look at including them in other plants," Ford spokesperson Karl Henkel told the Techcrunch web site this week, adding that "The co-bots are an "and" proposition and not na "or" proposition. It's not "can this robot do what a worker cannot do?" They're complementary, working together as a team."

Ford picked the job of fitting shock absorbers as the pilot application because it's typically a strenuous job that keeps workers standing on the assembly line for seven to eight hours. The co-bots, which are just over three feet tall and look mostly like a human arm, help with the process, as can be seen in the video clip released by Ford below.


All the workers have to do is press a button once they verify the shock is in the right place and the machine installs the part. The robots, developed with German robot manufacturer KUKA Robotics, clearly make the job easier for workers. They also have an array of sensors to ensure the robots stop instantly if they sense that a hand might be in its path.


(Article Continued Below)

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"Working overhead with heavy air-powered tools is a tough job that requires strength, stamina, and accuracy." said Ngali Bongongo, a production worker at Ford's Cologne plant. "The robot is a real help."

In its announcement, Ford said that the co-bots can even be programmed to make coffee or give massages.

Ford says the effort in its Cologne plant is connected to its adoption of the so-called Industry 4.0 Automation program being promoted by the government in Germany to take manufacturing to new levels there through adoption advanced technologies.


Do you see a bright future for collaborative robots in manufacturing? Why or why not? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback section below.

 

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