Manufacturers adopt robots that help human workers, not replace them. For now | 10/18/2018 | Staff
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During more than 25 years as a factory worker, David Young has seen a parade of robots take over tasks he and his colleagues used to do by hand.

So Young, a machine operator, isn't fazed by the sleek new "cobot—collaborative robot—perched at his workstation at Kay Manufacturing in Calumet City, Ill.

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The silver cobot, resembling a modern desk lamp, is being trained to do visual inspections of the automotive parts that Kay makes, its arm rotating the part so that an attached camera can detect any defects.

It's a task Young says he won't miss doing himself, just as he doesn't miss the manual work that gave him arthritis in his hands and feet before other robots took over those duties.

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"It is hard to see every little thing," said Young, 58. "This will make my job easier."

Collaborative robots, one of the fastest-growing segments in robotics, are becoming an increasingly popular automation tool for manufacturers seeking to boost productivity.

Capabilities - Workers - Cobots - People - Program

Designed to augment the capabilities of human workers rather than replace them, cobots are billed as safe for people to interact with, easy to program and inexpensive to install—a potential game-changer for small- and mid-size manufacturers that have lagged their larger competitors in the automation game.

Whether cobots maintain their promise as human helpers rather than substitutes remains to be seen. Their impact on employment may not be so benign once the technology evolves beyond repetitive tasks and they become better at thinking and learning, said Darrell West, founding director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution.

Threat - Humans - West - Prices - Cobots

"I don't think they represent a major threat to humans," West said. "But the prices are coming down and these cobots are getting more sophisticated, so down the road they could."

Yet cobot manufacturers insist the machines will free up their human colleagues to do more interesting jobs.

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