Meet Your Assembly Partner: A Robot

Meet Your Assembly Partner: A Robot

Several advances in robotic technology creates possibility of humans and robots working in tandem, sharing tools on assembly line.

Engineers have long envisioned a day when operators and robots would work in tandem, side-by-side on an assembly line. That futuristic image might be drawing ever closer given several advances in robotic technology.

On Wednesday, General Motors unveiled a humanoid robot it has developed with NASA engineers, which will be sent to work on the International Space Station. An additional Robonaut 2, as its named, or R2 shortened, is also being tested for use in Detroit.

The robot, which consists of a torso, arms and head, uses over 350 sensors and five cameras to see and can perform uniquely delicate tasks with its hands, which feature lifelike fingers for flexible materials.

Likewise, the pi4-workerbot, developed at the Fraunhofer Institute for Production Systems and Design Technology in Germany, was unveiled in November. While not nearly as dexterous as GMs R2, the pi4-workerbot has pressure-sensitive arms and 3D-camera eyes which allow it to quickly adapt to different assembly tasks and operate 24 hours a day.

Robonaut, developed by NASA and GM, features dexterous humanlike hands that allow it to work with tools typically used by humans.
The arms are so sensitive that, if correctly programmed, the robot could pick up an egg with the right force to stop it from breaking.

According to Dr. Dragoljub Surdilovic, the head of the Fraunhofer group, the robots size and shape allow it to be installed in workspaces designed for people. If a company needed to produce a product quickly, but was maxed out in worker resources, it could rent the workerbot easily.

At GM, the R2 is still a work in progress. Alan Taub, GMs vice president of global research and development, says the technology isnt just limited to industrial workspaces, but also could find its way into cars.

The sensing technology, in particular, could enable vehicles to detect and react to objects on the road, or could change lanes or alternative into cruise, according to GM.

The R2s unique characteristics are its slim fingers and opposable thumbs, which could allow it to share the same tools used by a human worker, along with its capacity to quickly mimic tasks.

Advanced robotic systems have been in use for years in the automotive assembly space. Toyota and Honda, in particular, have invested heavily in advancing the technology, developing a robot that could play a trumpet and another that can walk at the same pace as a human.

Both the pi4 and R2 are unique in that they suggest increased collaboration with operators, not merely replacing humans.

[The R2] was designed to work alongside astronauts and to work alongside people in the production of safer vehicles, says GMs Taub. It has really captured the imagination of the world. Its not made to play games.

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