There has been a lot written about robots replacing humans. But what we should be discussing is humans and how they will be working together with robots to create a better, more connected environment.

One of the most interesting examples of this in action is known as “cobots” (collaborative robots) and how these machines enhance human productivity without replacing it.

The World Economic Forum’s 2022 skills outlook provides a great summary of what we’ve been talking about in this column in terms of automation and the future of work.

On one hand, certain skills will become less valued in the future marketplace, including manual dexterity and precision, memory, the management of financial and material resources, tech installation and maintenance, and quality control.

On the other hand, certain skills will become more valued in the future marketplace, such as analytical and critical thinking, creativity and originality, tech design and programming, complex problem solving, and emotional intelligence.

While we will see a decline in jobs for data entry clerks and assembly and factory workers, we will see an uptick in jobs for data analysts and operations managers. In the meantime, the innovation landscape for industrial robots is hot and getting hotter.

A few weeks ago, the ARM (Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing) Institute formally announced its latest project call. Project topic areas include tools for successful robotics adoption and expansion, development of user-friendly interfaces for robotic systems in manufacturing, development of robotic systems for bi-directional communication on the shop floor, and human-robot trust and safety, among several others.

Selected projects will get funded, and it’s really just a great opportunity to pump some well-placed funds into the industry to help drive robotics manufacturing forward. But it’s important to mention that not all industrial robots are the same.

There is a lot of opportunity for human-robot collaboration in manufacturing, because not every task can be 100% automated.

For instance, let’s look at a cobot. Cobots have been around since the 1990s. They can physically interact with a human within a shared workspace. Cobots are becoming more and more practical thanks to innovation in the realms of sensor and vision technology, which essentially make human-robot collaboration safe. And they’re also becoming more practical as the technology gets cheaper.

Traditionally, in factories, we have these extremely heavy industrial robots that do very repetitive, linear tasks. Typically, though they are lighter, more flexible, and relatively easy to set up and program. Since they’re designed to work in close proximity to humans, they’re also a lot safer.

Amazon famously uses cobots to pick items from warehouse shelves and bring them to workers. Going forward, most likely we will see cobots becoming a lot more complex and therefore even more valuable to companies.

Here are a couple of examples of how cobots are impacting or will impact manufacturing. A project called Symplexity aims to improve the way humans and robots collaborate in the area of industrial polishing.

Autodesk is in on this project, along with 14 other partners, and it is looking to develop a solution that will account for the fact that polishing, though manual and time consuming, often requires human decisionmaking because of items’ complex geometries. What we need is for humans and robots to work together in the realm of industrial polishing, and cobots will help make this possible.

A cobot may also allow for human intervention to limit power and force, to stop when a human needs to intervene by sensing his or her presence and ceasing all motion, or to be “taught” how to handle an object through hand guidance.

The Yumi Collaborative robot from ABB is perhaps the classic example of a cobot. The original two-armed Yumi cobot now has a one-armed brother, which ABB announced last summer.

ABB is also now building cobots on a flexible and modular design platform that will open doors for more tailored solutions and more cobot shapes and sizes.

Kuka is also big in the field of “cobotics.” They are working on mobile cobots that respond intelligently to their surroundings—kind of like a cross between an industrial robot and a humanoid robot empowered by AI (artificial intelligence).

If you look to the future, it’s clear this is where it is headed—mobile, artificially intelligent, contextually aware cobots that truly enhance human productivity and drive value for industrial businesses, both big and small.

The World Economic Forum’s research states that for automation to continue workers will need an extra 101 days of learning by 2022. Thus, the rise of cobots and robots in the industrial arena will mean human workers will need to get better at being human. Humans won’t be able to be better than robots at tasks robots can do. That’s just a fact. So why even try? It’s time to accentuate what makes us human and capitalize on it. Robots can’t take care of all repetitive and dangerous tasks.

Let’s build cobots that can take on these repetitive and dangerous tasks under the guidance of a human who can apply critical thinking and complex decisionmaking. All in all, it’s a really exciting time in the realm of robotics. There’s so much innovation happening right now, and I’m sure we haven’t even seen the tip of the iceberg yet.

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