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Will your next colleague be a cobot?

Turn off the TV and stop stressing over fictional dystopian stories about how machines will destroy the world. Instead, it's time to explore real-world examples of how new technology – cobots – complements humans rather than replaces them.

When doomscrolling on your smartphone, it doesn't take long until you come across a story about AI and killer robots inflicting judgment day on humans or, at the very least, taking your job. However, the reality is we are witnessing the rise of cobots that are collaborating instead of competing with humans.

It’s challenging to think of a movie, TV show, or book where a future world dominated by technology is depicted as being positive or beneficial to humans. But rather than chasing the dystopian vision popularised by fictional stories, there are many positive examples of human and robot collaboration where machines augment some of our capabilities so that we can focus on the skills unique to humans.

Rise of the cobots

Millions of robot lawnmowers and vacuum cleaners are already doing the jobs we all hate around the home to give us more leisure time. The same school of thought is entering the workplace where collaborative robots or cobots are freeing up their human co-workers from the shackles of performing repetitive and mundane tasks. Employees can then focus their efforts on tasks that generate more business value. As a result, humans and cobots are slowly forming a formidable team.

A great example can be found at Ford, where production line employee Dietmar Brauner thought his 30-plus-year career was over after experiencing recurring health issues with his shoulder and wrist. However, his new colleague, a collaborative robot named Robbie, has given him a new lease on life.

Sanofi, one of the world's leading healthcare companies, also embraced cobots on its mission to optimize its packaging lines. However, from a health and safety point of view, human operators picking up a collective weight of between 300 and 700 on every shift was unsustainable, and it was also adding unnecessary risk to its employees.

The new partnership proved successful despite initial safety concerns from operators around the potential dangers of accidental collisions between cobots and human team members. But the robot immediately shut down whenever a human contact approached the machine putting everyone at ease. As a result, the palletizing robots enabled Sanofi to dramatically increase its production rates while also reducing its employees' musculoskeletal disorders so they could focus on tasks that deliver value to the business.

From a productivity standpoint, cobots are not cursed with the affliction of human error. As a result, machines provide much higher levels of repeatability and accuracy than humans when working on repeatable tasks. Furthermore, as AI and ML become more sophisticated, they will gradually become less reliant on programming. In addition, advanced sensors and cameras will contribute to precision, learning, improved performance, and safety.

This way, it's safe to predict that it will become much easier for cobots to replicate human behavior in the same way a human trainee would. Ultimately, the problems cobots can solve in multiple industries have plagued the workplace for decades. Imagine the transformational possibilities resulting from removing monotonous tasks and improving safety standards and quality levels while empowering employees with new skill sets to make a difference in the company.

However, cobots are not isolated to the automotive and manufacturing sectors or warehouses. As the world moves towards sustainable smart farming, agriculture cobots are already helping make lives easier for farmers when harvesting, with much of the human workforce turning its back on manual labor.

With IoT heat sensors, drones, thermal cameras, and 5G connectivity, we are only beginning to understand Agri-tech's possibilities. For example, the collaboration between Universal Robots, Augmentus, and Singrow resulted in integrated AI that was capable of helping to identify flowers and strawberries. A camera-enabled cobot then automatically activates a fan to speed up pollination. Elsewhere, another company called Traptic created a cobot that can pick around 100,000 strawberries a day.

However, with great power comes great responsibility. A quick look inside Amazon's Smart Warehouse reveals how at scale, the speed and accuracy of cobots combined with human workers are transforming order fulfillment for its customers. But the questions about the treatment of their human workers prevent the tech behemoth's business model from being an example that anyone should replicate.

Many are guilty of introducing shiny new technology before identifying the problem. So, before bringing cobots into a business, there needs to be a conversation with employees about identifying the repetitive, mundane, and physically exhausting tasks that everybody hates within the company. Only then can the undeniable human traits of creativity, critical thinking, and strategy go into solution mode.

Collaborative robots do exactly what they say on the proverbial tin. They are designed to collaborate with your teams, not overwork or replace them. So, the bigger question is, what solutions can you create by combining the speed, accuracy, and technical abilities of a robot combined with the problem-solving skills of your human employees? When you have the answers to this question, it will be time to introduce your team to the brave new world of cobots without anyone fearing losing their job.

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