How Workplaces Can Accommodate Both Humans and Robots

In modern workplaces, robots and artificial intelligence (AI) are becoming increasingly essential. In fact, the use of industrial robotics has become widespread, reaching all kinds of industries and businesses:

  • Aerospace
  • Automotive
  • Fulfillment
  • Food and beverage
  • Healthcare
  • Manufacturing

Not only do these technologies help businesses deliver more efficient and productive daily operations, but they are becoming much more accurate and affordable. While the role of robotics and AI in warehouse automation is evolving, questions around accommodation and human interaction still need answering — not only to promote better robotics practices, but also to keep workers safe and operations streamlined.

Let’s explore how workplaces can accommodate both robots and humans to promote efficiency and bridge the gap between human hands and our mechanical helpers.

Why Is It Important to Consider Human and Robot Interaction in a Workplace?

Don’t let the advanced nature of robotics fool you; we’re not in the “set it and forget it” phase of automation just yet. In fact, creating an efficient robotics system requires some fairly customized programming and environmental changes. The result, though, is highly beneficial.

Robots can handle larger and more risky tasks that put human workers in harm’s way. They can also help human workers with everyday, repetitive tasks. While certain jobs will always need the intelligence and intuition of a human, that certainly doesn’t mean elements of the activity can’t be in the hands of a robotic assistant.

Take picking operations as an example. In a perfect world, a robotic workforce could accurately and efficiently move through the day without error. But mistakes can happen. When they do, the rigorous programming of a robotic assistant could spell trouble. In this instance, a human with a keen eye can manage this robotic workforce, catch errors when they appear and remedy problems before they grow into larger issues.

Even with this hybrid workforce, businesses still reap many of the same benefits of fully automated activities:

  • Safety. Workers can hand off difficult and risky tasks to robotics.
  • Efficiency. Robotic workers can perform tasks with much higher precision and accuracy.
  • Productivity. Robotic workers can work day and night without the need for breaks or sleep.

At the end of the day, these robotic workers are here to help us with our jobs. While many applications can benefit from full automation, even in an advanced workplace, humans will always have a role in operations. This means businesses keen to adopt this advanced tech should carefully consider human-robot collaboration.

You should design your facility’s space and layout to meet the needs and demands of both your robotics and your human workers.

Finding Suitable Locations for Human-Robot Interaction Tasks

You should understand that adding robotics is similar to adding new equipment to your facility. While some equipment might not require a full redesign of your facility, other bigger and more complex pieces might. This idea follows for robotics. While some robotics can easily fit into your current layout, others will need some careful planning.

You should design your facility’s space and layout to meet the needs and demands of both your robotics and your human workers. You’ll have many things to consider when planning your warehouse space — especially if robotic devices are part of your overall design plan. Let’s explore some of those key aspects:

Programming and Control

Underneath all that metal, rubber and plastic is a brain — in this case, a silicon chipset loaded with advanced programming and other technologies. It follows that programming will then play an essential role in robot control. 

Programming helps determine what the robot will do and how it will do it:

  • What tasks need to be done
  • What role sensor data plays in processing
  • Considerations for worker safety (if applicable)
  • Other programming directives

For example, a robot that needs to hand an object to a human needs to have the proper programming in order to safely and efficiently work. If even one variable is off, it could lead to errors. This could be the distance from the human worker, the weight of the object they are handling or other factors.

That’s why most industrial robots need some sort of manual control. This means that installing a robot in your facility is a custom job that requires an understanding of the environment, the intended tasks, placement and other variables.

Safety

It should come as no surprise that safety is a paramount concern when dealing with robotics — not only for the sake of human workers, but for the expensive robotics themselves. Proper placement is important when trying to manage workplace safety.

A manufacturing robot may play an essential role in operations, but even so, safety considerations need to be upfront. If these robots are dealing with dangerous equipment like welding torches or spark-shedding grinding tools, you’ll need to properly distance them from areas where human workers might operate.

Placing your robotics in the wrong place can lead to many different problems:

  • Tripping hazards for workers
  • Electrical hazards (as robots require higher-voltage connections)
  • Heavy item hazards (for robots that deal with cumbersome items)

In each of these instances, distance and proper placement are the answer to the safety question. Of course, other elements like proper visibility, signage and workplace training will also play a role in overall safety practices.

Background

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Level of Interaction

When designing robotic equipment, considerations for certain biological constraints are somewhat absent. Unlike us humans, robots don’t need a perfect environment to operate. You can design systems that can work in cramped spaces, hot environments or otherwise unsafe conditions. But if you intend to have your system work alongside your human workforce, you’ll need to pay close attention to the level of interaction between humans and robots.

For example, if you need a robot to help with, say, picking operations, that robot will need to safely work alongside other workers. This will mean staying out of the way and being accessible when necessary. Proper placement can help make the robotic equipment more convenient for workers.

This also plays into the overall layout and design of your facility. Let’s jump back to our picking example again. If you need your robot to help manage inventory, you’ll need to consider the placement of other equipment like industrial shelving or pallet racks. These pieces of equipment also need to be accessible for robotics while still retaining accessibility for human workers. When human interaction is part of daily operations, placement, convenience and safety should be on your mind.

Ergonomics

At the end of the day, the role of robots in the workplace is to streamline operations and make activities more convenient. While we can all think of many tasks that would benefit from robotics, other areas may seem less obvious. You can use robotics for all kinds of complicated tasks, but simple ones can ensure workers limit risky behaviors that lead to accidents or injuries:

  • Lifting heavy objects
  • Transferring awkward of large inventory
  • Bending down for equipment

Your average worker in a warehouse may consider all of these tasks to be just part of the job. But adding a robotic helper can improve ergonomics and limit worker injuries. Take handing over an item — what seems simple to us is actually a fairly complex movement.

For robots, those kinds of movements require a lot of advanced tech. So, why go through all the trouble? Well, these simple tasks can impact a person’s physical health. Bending down or getting up to change tools or grab more materials can slowly wear down a person’s energy and lead to injuries. A robot can take over these tasks, adding a level of convenience and protection from repetition injuries. This is one of the many ways robots can improve daily operations.

Productivity

One of the main benefits of adding robots is helping with overall workplace productivity. When working alongside robots, human workers can work faster and with fewer errors. But this increased productivity is not a result of the fact that robots are present — rather, it’s because of the way they interact with the environment and workers.

If a robot’s job is to assist with packaging, it needs to be close by to provide the assistance without adding extra time or steps to the process. If workers need to walk away from their station, that could lead to productivity loss. This makes the placement of robots as important as the tasks they handle.

Robots are yet another tool available for businesses to improve overall productivity and operations. Much like other tools, you can implement them inefficiently. You won’t find a no-fuss solution when it comes to robotics. These systems take some time to design and implement. In the end, though, the result is improvements in not only productivity but many other performance indicators.

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