Engineers at the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) are leading the way in collaborative robotics research in a drive to help SMEs integrate the technology onto factory floors.
Collaborative robots – or ‘cobots’ – differ from conventional industrial robots in that they feature technology that allows them to operate more safely alongside human workers in a shared area.
They are capable of operating with limited force and speed, and are equipped with force-sensing to enable them to stop when they come into contact with an operator.
Traditionally, the safe use of robots in manufacturing has relied on barriers, cages and fences that keep humans and robots separated. The downside to this is that it uses lots of floor space and limits the work robots and humans can do together.
Phil Kitchen has been leading on a Catapult-funded collaborative robotics research project for the Integrated Manufacturing Group at the AMRC’s Factory 2050, developing technology demonstrators for industrial partners to show how humans and robots can work safely together and testing a new safety standard awaiting ratification for different types of cobots.
Developing a ‘gold standard’ in cobot safety
The project began in May 2017 and completed in March 2018 with the aim of developing a ‘gold standard’ in cobot safety that could increase confidence among SMEs to integrate the technology onto their factory floors and transform production lines by increasing the rate at which a process is done, as well as the uniformity and quality of finish on a product.
As part of this work, a cell was created at Factory 2050 which demonstrated cobot safety integration to show potential adopters the usefulness of the technology and that it is able to be industrialised.
Kitchen commented: “There are a number of benefits of collaborative robotics for SMEs – improved quality, improved rate, so the rate at which they are making their products – and if they improve rate they can potentially sell more and expand, helping them to grow through the use of collaborative robotics.
“A technical specification was released which detailed how you would go about integrating a collaborative robotic system. It’s not yet been ratified as a full ISO standard to use and that is being worked towards now.
“Essentially what we are aiming to do is put ourselves in the right position to act when the technical specification is ratified by the HSE.”
Cobots are reportedly suited to any industry that involves assembly – ranging from aerospace and automotive to pick and place and inspection.
However, one of the challenges for companies wanting to use the technology is the task of safely integrating these robots – there are limited companies in the UK who have the knowledge do this. By doing the research now, the AMRC aims to position itself at the forefront of collaborative robotics expertise in the UK.
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