In future robots will routinely work alongside human beings within factories, distribution centres and other workplaces, according to Junji Tsuda, chairman of Japanese robots firm Yaskawa Electric Corporation.
"Currently 99.9 percent of robots are within a fence," Tsuda said at Huawei's Global Mobile Broadband Forum in Tokyo.
However Yaskawa has developed robots which will work alongside human beings. "This is major, it's a good collaboration and it is opening a new market in many different fields. The robot has now gone mobile," he said.
This latest innovation has been led by demand from the automotive industry, which has always been an early adopter within robotics ever since Henry Ford introduced the first moving assembly line in 1913.
Yaskawa was founded in Japan 100 years ago as a motor manufacturer and created its first 'mechatronic' robotic machine 50 years ago, introducing the ability to move from mechanical transmission to 'cyber controlled transmission', Tsuda explained.
Now, robots are used in many industries beyond car makers, for example within drug discovery and Swedish furniture giant IKEA, which has automated its entire manufacturing and delivery system.
However robots are set to become far more embedded into our daily working lives, 'coexisting' with humans on a daily basis within workplaces, according to Tsuda.
"AI is starting to improve the problem we've had, and enabling a 'human coexistence robot'. The collaborative robot is coming," he said.
This new type of robot has also come from the automotive industry. "When you visit automobile manufacturing sites, you'll see a lot of people working there still in assembly lines, installing heavy seats, instrumentation panels and so on, which require the precision of a human," Tsuda explained.
"This was a requirement: for us to develop a robot which will work together with human beings," he said.
However, before this futuristic world of robotic colleagues can exist, several major barriers will have to be overcome, Tsuda admitted. These primarily centre around security, safety and the speed at which robots can operate.
The idea of connecting robots within factories to the cloud, so you can make it easier to link them together, collect and analyse data for predictive maintenance and organise their workload, is a compelling one for Yaskawa. However there's one big barrier.
"You will never see a factory operating computer-run robots connected to the internet. There's a big security problem there that needs to be overcome...hopefully one day all the apparatus in the factory will be connected together and manufacturers will share data to improve output. But we have a big problem around the security of communication," he said.
Another major problem is whether robots can be made sufficiently safe to work with humans at very close quarters.
"A robot is the most flexible machine. But it's flexible, so it's dangerous. Most robots are in a fence because they can be harmful. Even inside that fence there is a lot of safety architecture: rapid redundancy measures for example. But now we're talking about a collaborative robot which will work together with human beings," Tsuda said.
Currently, these sorts of 'collaborative' robots are programmed to move very slowly so that the robot will not hurt human beings. However this in itself is another issue to be overcome, according to Tsuda.
"Robots have to sense the proximity of humans and detect, with no time delay, any contact with human beings. However we also want them to work quickly. For them to be efficient, very fast operation is needed. So we need some sort of controls if we are to address those issues of safety while being able to respond quickly," he added.
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