They have been released from their cages. Robots are now working in vehicle production together with their human colleagues and completely without protective enclosures. They provide support and assistance and take on physically strenuous tasks. People and robots are not competing for work, but complementing one another with their respective strengths.
Adam is a robot
... and has only one finger. A suction cup about the size of a coin, because Adam is a robot. A camera serves as an eye, his arm is a 1.40-meter metal construction clad in orange foam padding. Running through his body are blue, black and green veins – all coursing with electricity.
Since January of this year, this new “employee” has been a fixed member of the production team on the Audi A4 assembly line. “Adam has been incredibly well accepted,” says Betz. “My colleague here makes my job easier,” Adam takes over all the bending that Emil Betz had to do. The robot uses its suction cap to fish coolant expansion tanks from a deep crate and pass them to the 1.63-meter-tall technician right at the moment he needs the part, and at a height that is comfortable and ergonomic for Betz. This is a big relief for Betz. “Because I’m not that tall, getting hold of the last tanks was always quite a strain for me.”
Adam’s work is comparatively simple, but it relieves the technician of a physically strenuous activity. “Our aim is to design every workstation to be as ergonomic as possible,” says Johann Hegel, Head of Technology Development Assembly. To this end, Hegel is working with a project team on easing the strain on more employees in future with the aid of robots. “This work is most urgent in the case of production because that’s where we have the greatest physical exertion. We also have to face the fact that demographics aren’t working in our favor.”
Baby boomers – born between 1955 and 1969 – make up the largest proportion of the workforce at Audi, too. Some of the production workstations and processes are being made more ergonomic and less strenuous and Adam is contributing to that.
But Adam is not all about ergonomics. He is one of the stars of the Smart Factory – the Audi path into the industrial future. After steam engines, the assembly line and computer technology, comprehensive networking is the key to this next major transition.
The main task is to organize the massive flow of data in order to network machines, systems, products and people and enable them to communicate with one another in real time.
Adam communicates with the control system and with the people installing the coolant expansion tanks. Every time Emil Betz releases the fill hose from the car, pressing a small red button in the process, Adam also receives the signal to pass him the expansion tank. The robot thus uses a signal already in existence. “Adam is very easily integrated into the production process,” says Project Leader Thomas Schraml, continuing, “Adam’s big advantage is that he adapts to the pace of the technician. That’s the main difference from his colleagues working alone in cages.”
“Adam is very easily integrated into the production process,”
While the robots within the enclosures usually remain nameless, Betz and his co-workers insisted on naming their new helper on the line. “We mulled it over for ages and finally opted for ‘Adam’. We found it quite apt, because he’s the first of his kind,” says Emil Betz.
Adam purposefully approaches a large, grey box. Using the camera at the front end of the arm, the robot checks how the components inside are arranged. He sets his suction cap onto one of the tanks and lifts it out. Adam swings his arm backward in a semi-circle and lays the tank on a small table, then awaits his signal. As soon as Betz detaches the brake fill hose, Adam’s arm glides through the air holding the part, coming to a halt just in front of Betz.
The prerequisite for the cooperation between man and robot is networking. This is something we will continue to push forward, because it is one of the ways to ensure our efficiency,” explains Hegel. Despite the fact that customer wishes are becoming increasingly individualized, that no two cars on the production line are the same and that complexity continues to increase, efficiency cannot be allowed to drop, because less efficiency means less competitiveness.
Another aspect of this is saving on production space – Hegel and his team gain almost five square meters because Adam doesn’t require a protective enclosure. In contrast to his big brothers, which heave tons of considerably heavier components, Adam may not be barricaded behind wire mesh, but he is nevertheless firmly fixed to his workstation.
Adam works three shifts straight at this workstation – early, late and nightshift. The people working on each of those shifts have gradually been getting use to their new co-worker. They learnt about working with robots in special training courses and were able to test its safety in every situation. “During the training sessions, we asked the technicians to initiate collisions with the robot, to show that Adam is absolutely safe and presents no danger at all,” says Schraml.
Adam has “eyes” everywhere. His capacitive proximity sensors react incredibly sensitively to changes in their measuring field. Nothing escapes the total of seven proximity sensors and the large number of touch sensors in Adam’s soft foam skin. If a person approaches, the electromagnetic measuring field changes and he slows down his arm. In the event of contact, the touch sensors in his soft protective skin react and he freezes mid-air.
Adam’s safety has been certified by the employers’ liability insurance association. Audi is current planning such certification for a further robot application – the assistance robot in tailgate assembly at the Neckarsulm plant. This robot measures the tailgate with sensors and compares the data with those of the bodyshell. It then positions the component to within a hair’s breadth on the vehicle body. The technician then only has to fasten it in place.
“The robot cannot be allowed to endanger people – that is our number one priority. The safety requirements are therefore equally high for all robots,” says Hegel. However, in tailgate assembly, the safety challenges are even greater, because the tailgate is large and heavy and it has sharp edges. The working area is therefore monitored by several laser scanners.
Projections onto the floor aid communication between man and machine. When the robot is standing safely and the technician in the shared area is permitted to work, a green tick lights up on the floor. But if the projection on the floor shows a stop sign, the technician should not enter the shared working space. If he or she nevertheless approaches, the robot comes to a standstill.
Like Adam, the robot in tailgate assembly serves as an assistant. However, while work researcher Eric Brynjolfsson from the MIT Sloan School of Management describes the new robot generation as “new-age slaves in a digital Athens”, Hegel views the situation positively, “I think people and robots will become the best of friends in assembly.”
“Adam has been incredibly well accepted. My colleague here makes my job easier,” Adam takes over all the bending that Emil Betz had to do. The robot uses its suction cap to fish coolant expansion tanks from a deep crate and pass them to the 1.63-meter-tall technician right at the moment he needs the part.
Hegel is certain that this relationship will be consolidated as robots become more intelligent. As soon as data flows in real time and machines learn from it, then robots will be able to navigate their way through assembly and provide help where help is needed. These robots will be able to learn and the engineers will no longer have to predict and program every eventuality. “But in this far-distant future scenario, too, robots and people will each bring the best from their respective worlds,” says Hegel. The particular attraction of robots is that they are exceptionally precise and not susceptible to fatigue. People maintain the overview, take decisions based on the situation and monitor the work done by the robot.
“There will be even more robots at Audi in future providing people with direct assistance,” predicts Hegel. The number of robots is increasing not just in the automotive industry, but in the chemicals and electronics industries as well. Recent years have seen the robot family grow substantially across all sectors. According to estimates by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), there were around 1.5 million industrial robots worldwide in 2014, against just 850,000 ten years before. By 2017, it is expected that the number of robots in all companies worldwide will have grown to as many as two million.
1,5 million robots worldwide
In 1964, Isaac Asimov certainly didn’t reckon with 1.5 million robots. Back then, the scientist and science-fiction author wrote in an article in the New York Times:
“Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014.”
He couldn’t have been more wrong.