The bodyshop and paintshop in BMW’s plant in Spartanburg, US, have long been dominated by cage-bound industrial robots that take on monotonous, dangerous or high-precision tasks such as welding and heavy lifting.
But robots were more scarce on the final assembly line, as workers need to perform intricate tasks in the vehicle interior without the risk of being clobbered by a heavy robot arm.
Now BMW is bringing robots out from behind their cages to work side-by-side with workers on the assembly line. Lightweight “collaborative” robots manufactured by Denmark’s Universal Robots help to fit doors with sound and moisture insulation, a task that previously required workers to use a manual roller that risked straining older workers’ wrists.
“Being able to reliably put a robot outside the “safety cage” and have it work with a human is a massive change for industry, and means you can have a strong precise robot help a weak dexterous human,” says Rich Walker of Shadow Robots, a UK robotics research company.
Human-machine collaboration is just one of several big trends in robotics that are opening up new markets and applications beyond automotive and semiconductor manufacturing, where robots have been a mainstay for decades.
Advances in sensors, hydraulics, mobility, artificial intelligence, machine vision and big data are making robots more sensitive, flexible, precise and autonomous.
This means robots can be employed beyond manufacturing to healthcare, the laboratory, logistics, agriculture and even the film industry.