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EMO Milano Day 2: Welcome Our Robot Overlords

Coming to a factory near you: A new generation of collaborative, heavy-duty robots designed to empower human workers, not replace them

Coming to a factory near you: A new generation of collaborative, heavy-duty robots designed to empower human workers, not replace them

A quick search on EMO Milano 2015's exhibitor catalog turns up 119 industrial robotics companies on the show floor. Considering that Fanuc robots alone are represented in over 160 different booths, the human-to-robot ratio here is feeling a little skewed toward the machines.

I have never seen such an impressive array of robots and related technologies. Robots are everywhere here, doing everything. They are hefting cars, handing out toys, running powerful and fenceless in the heart of the human swarms.

The line-up is sending a strong message to the manufacturers in attendance: The robots aren't coming; they're already here. A whole army of them, in fact, ready to do your work.

Not all of them are taking this news well.

At a special foreign journalists press event yesterday, EMO Milano 2015's general commissioner, Pier Luigi Streparava, addressed this concern directly.

He had been asked, he told us, if the overload of robots here is an indication that, as he put it, "men are no longer central to the manufacturing world."

"This is not the case," he explained. "This is not what we imagine."

"We believe that robotics will help the manufacturing center, but man will still be at the center," he added.

This, of course, is the standard reply. Robots are making work easier, making individual workers more powerful and more efficient. They create jobs, not destroy them. Etc. Etc.

However, looking at the technologies here, there are certain undeniable trends emerging in the industry that are making some attendees a little nervous.

Robots are easier to train, they are collaborative and safe. They are armed with sensors and force control to allow them – even the big guys – to work closely with humans, doing simple pick and place tasks and complex, high speed sorting.

They don't require the same engineering as traditional industrial robotics and they don't require nearly the floor space or safety accoutrements either.

They are ready for deployment on a massive scale, quickly and easily, and all of them seem to be getting ever closer to human behavior and human capabilities.

So I understand the concerns brought to the commissioner and I understand his need to address them to us. Robots of the industrial world are throwing some serious competition our way.

Just when I was starting to fall into this thinking, I ran into Fanuc's CR-35iA collaborative robot.

In the world of collaborative robots, we already have some assumptions. These robots are slower, of course, they are smaller and softer and generally limited to pick and place or machine tending tasks.

They are amazing tools for the new manufacturing floor, of course, but there remains a big functional difference between collaborative and traditional robots

Not so with the CR-35iA.

This one is a normal, high capacity, yellow Fanuc covered in a soft green foam and equipped with safety stop protections in case of collision.

Basically, rather than starting from scratch to create a new kind of robot to compete in the collaborative race, Fanuc simply made its own proven technology collaborative. Which is pretty clever.

As a result, the company has a sturdy-yet-safe robot with a massive 77 lb payload (compared to the 10-25 lb usually found in the collaborative market).

This opens up some interesting doors.

The model on display at EMO is equipped with a prototype controller and, oddly, a car seat. It looks like some kind of ride. So of course I asked if I could take it for a spin.

The system is surprisingly easy to operate. With 5 seconds of training, I was able to swing that seat around like a pro.

The controls are intuitive and simple and the robot followed my commands so easily I forgot all about the high powered robot hiding under the plush skin. It seemed like a fun new tool and I used it as such.

I asked the presenter about the seat, hinting that I might want take a ride on it.

Well, it's not a ride, it turns out. The seat is there to illustrate one of the intended applications of the device—automotive assembly.

Using the controller, which won't be out until next year, assemblers can grab heavy components like seats and tires with the CR, and place them wherever they go without breaking their backs in the process. Sort of like an external bionic arm.

Even better, he told me that the only way to do this in a factory today is with normal high-powered robots, which means all of the necessary safety cages and precise engineering that they require.

The CR-35iA, however, allows workers to do this job themselves, skipping the process gap between placement and installation, which could help speed up assembly by a few seconds.

That's right. This robot isn't putting humans out of work, it's putting robots out of work.

That seems like a big, big deal.

If we use this as a potential model for a new generation of industrial robots and we extrapolate this concept across the 119 other booths throughout the fieramilano complex,  the natural concerns about automation seem much easier to cope with.

If we look at those familiar pro-robot arguments, this sort of proves the point. This model does make work easier, and it definitely makes individual workers more powerful and efficient.

Streparava's point is also supported. This machine really does—literally—put humans at the center of operation.

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