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Cobots: redefining the nature of manual work

18 April 2021

The adoption of robotics in food production operations can make work less dangerous, strenuous and tedious for operators – but it calls for sensitive implementation and a commitment to reskilling. 

Before the start of this decade, various forces were already combining to widen the adoption of robotics technology. Robots were being installed in greater numbers, chiefly in factories, but also in scientific laboratories, warehouses and logistics facilities – and even in such traditionally labour-intensive domains such as food preparation. 

In March 2020, those forces were intensified with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, which brought with it a need for social distancing in workplaces, and demonstrated to industry that its far-flung, globalised supply chains were surprisingly fragile. 

Today, innovation in the food sector is moving from a focus on product introduction, to a focus on process innovation and robotics has an important part to play in industry’s response to these coronavirus-induced phenomena. 

Innovations in robot technology has made them quicker and easier to implement than ever before. As the robotic. technical challenges reduce, the spotlight is shifting to people and processes. An understandable fear is robots replacing humans and taking jobs, but in fact the introduction of robots takes ‘tasks’ away from humans, not jobs. People will still have to do what the robots cannot do – using imagination and creativity to refine or reinvent a process.  Robotics technology can lead to profound changes to patterns of staff deployment, to the requirement for skills and training, and even to organisational culture and to society at large, and these changes deserve careful attention. 

Nicola O’Byrne, global ambassador for robotics at Analog Devices, has the role of advising on the wider issues involved in the introduction or extension of robotics. She said: “This higher-level view is more important than ever, because the coronavirus pandemic is driving companies to adopt robotics technology faster than before but there are a number of issues that need to be taken into account  to ensure that deployments are quick and effective.” 

“We know from real-world experience that robots are huge productivity enhancers on the factory production line,’ continued O’Byrne. “While the classic uses of robots involves the deployment of large, expensive machines which take weeks to install, commission and programme. We are seeing growing interest in the deployment of new types of robots, including collaborative robots, or cobots. Social distance requirements on plant floors, absence because of illness or self-isolation makes it harder to plan work rosters, and it means that in some settings employers simply cannot accommodate their usual complement of workers. Robots or cobots offer the potential to take up the slack.”

The pandemic has also put pressure on global supply chains which were already feeling the strain of Brexit. An increasingly common response is to ‘reshore’ production, so that products are processed closer to the point of purchase or use, meaning less transport of the final valuable product.

Again, robots have an important role to play here. “Reshoring can be good for business continuity and resilience, but food processors producing in western Europe or North America do not have the same access to low-cost labour as in other locations. Robots solve the workforce problem, the Association of Labour Providers’ survey in January 2018 highlighted that 70% of food and beverage manufacturing companies were suffering from a shortage of low and unskilled labour. They also provide the additional benefit of enabling a more modular and flexible approach to production operations, supporting moves towards mass customisation.’ 

New roles 
According to O’Byrne, this new wave of automation is not just about more of the same: innovative organisations are finding new ways to automate, which require new kinds of robots – and new skills in their human operators. She said: “One of the biggest new developments is in the design and deployment of cobots. They can take away the grind and strain involved in much manual labour. They can do the tedious, repetitive or dangerous tasks such as picking, placing, inspection, sorting even cleaning and disinfection, under the guidance of a human operator.” In addition, robotics can significantly improve efficiency in food preparation, as portioning will be extremely accurate, reducing waste and product giveaway.

A cobot’s operation alongside a human operator means that the power they use and the space they occupy must be more limited than for a conventional stand-alone robot. They also need to be aware of their environment, so that they slow down or stop when they detect a person close to a moving part such as a tool or the arm of the cobot. 

“Cobot manufacturers are finding new ways to enable faster and easier commissioning and programming,” said O’Byrne. “They have introduced a highly abstracted approach to programming. In many cases, the user does not need to write a single line of code – the operations of the cobot can be configured via a tablet-style console. Then the operator can perform ‘guided programming,’ positioning the cobot arm in a sequence of points in space and pressing a button on the console to store the sequence in the cobot’s memory.”

Industry vision
Smaller, cheaper cobots which are quicker and easier to deploy: this is industry’s vision today for the wider adoption of robotics. The combination of cobot and human can achieve a much greater output, more safely, than a human on their own. This is giving rise to opportunities to re-imagine work and the workplace. What we are used to thinking of as ‘manual work’ could be transformed, eliminating the physical strain, tedium and danger, as well as the scope for human error, and freeing workers to perform more stimulating work which makes better use of their cognitive abilities. 

O’Byrne points out, however, that this transformation needs to be carefully managed if industry is to retain the consent of the communities which it works in. She said:  “Today, people are fearful that robots will replace people, particularly the least qualified and lowest paid sections of society. While I understand the fear, I think it is misplaced. People still have to do what the cobots cannot do: manage the process, use creativity to refine or reinvent it, and build the team which works with the cobots. These are functions which require humanity, not machinery.” 

O’Byrne also points out that those who are already employed to perform a task are often the best people to help configure, operate and manage the cobot. She said: ‘In a food processing plant, the people on the shopfloor have the most intimate knowledge of the process, so they will know best how to integrate cobots into it. Of course, this change in their role requires some additional skills and training, but organisations can bring their staff and the wider community with them if they support that transition with generous programmes for training and reorganisation. I think public bodies can usefully play a role here too, for instance to extend the provision of vocational robotics courses for school leavers to enhance their value to a first employer.

“A win-win outcome from the adoption of new robotics technologies is possible,” concludes O’Bryne. “Technology is at the heart of successful implementations of robotics, but take care of the people and the process as well, if you want to enjoy the full benefits that the new generation of robots have to offer.”

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