Robots working in harmony alongside people — sounds like science fiction, perhaps? Not for MIT researchers, who are finding that putting robots into collaborative work environments could truly be the wave of the future. Universal Robots might be helping to save their human coworkers’ health and their jobs, too.

Robotic intervention
At MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the Interactive Robotics Group is finding ways to train robots to perform tasks in a “dynamic” environment. Julie Shah, assistant professor and group director, discusses this process.

“If the robot does something good, we tell them it’s good, and if not, we say it’s not good, and the robot learns through that reinforcement process,” says Shah. The main priority is to program the robots to work together with people in a safe and efficient manner.

Many manufacturing processes, especially those during the final stage of assembly in transportation industries and electronics, need to be completed by people. However, there are often aspects of these jobs that can benefit from robotic intervention.

“People waste time walking back and forth [in an assembly line] to pick up the next piece to install,” says Shah says. “A mobile robotic assistant can fetch the right tools and parts at the right time.”

Furthermore, tasks that are extremely repetitive or tedious can be dangerous. Boredom and repetition can introduce carelessness, which often leads to injury or error. Repetitive motion injuries are another concern.

“Factories of the near future are going to look very different,” says Shah. “We’re beginning to see safety standards and technology that lets us put some of these large, dangerous industrial robots onto mobile bases and rails so that they can safely work with people.” Automation and adaptability are important factors in this capability.

Protecting workers
Not only can robots help to protect people from repetitive stress injuries, they can even protect them from unemployment. Many of the jobs that today’s robots are being programmed for are difficult to fill; people simply aren’t interested in the work. Manufacturers often struggle to maintain factories at full capacity.

One such company turned to Richard Greene Company to help implement Universal Robots on its assembly line. Rather than outsource jobs to its international facilities, this leading electric-motor manufacturer wanted to maintain its U.S. plant. By adding Universal Robots and Red Lion human-machine interfaces (HMIs) to its line, the company was able to drive down manufacturing costs, supplement its workforce, and make the plant “more competitive and reactive,” explains Richard Greene Sales Manager Jay Wilks.

The company makes electric motors of all shapes and sizes for industrial and commercial use. As such, the rotor-manufacturing assembly line involves numerous shifts in product batches. Furthermore, pick and place — moving rotors from one line to another, packing rotors for shipment — is a crucial step in the process. Both jobs are tedious and error prone, and that’s where the Universal Robots come in.

“The robot deals with taking the rotors off the conveyor after they are ground,” says Wilks, “It puts the rotors on a tray. Then a second robot takes them off the tray after they go through the oxidation oven and packs them in a bin, which is then shipped down to Mexico.”

Meeting the challenge
Of course, there are challenges to working with robots. Traditionally, safety has been a concern, though modern technological advances are changing that.

Automation isn’t always about replacing humans with machines. In fact, recent advances in industrial technology are allowing them to work side by side. In the past, according to Shah, putting robots in close proximity to human workers was considered inefficient and unsafe. Robots were programmed to slow or halt when a person was nearby. And human workers often moved into the robots’ space, causing a slowdown in production.

But thanks to new safety features and capabilities, many of these concerns are outdated. Improvements in HMIs such as those by Red Lion, which are used in the electric motor manufacturer’s assemblies, help to guarantee precision and enable flexibility.

Speaking of flexibility, another issue is finding ways to help the robot deal with unexpected change. For example, the metal bins that Richard Greene’s motor-manufacturer customer uses tend to get dinged up during their shipment to and from Mexico. A human worker might barely notice such damage, but it can present quite a challenge for a robot that simply carries out the motions according to its programming.

“The robots can’t deal with it,” explains Wilks. “When the bottom of the bin gets dented, for example, the rotors fall over. But the robot doesn’t know that, so it keeps packing in rotors on top of the fallen ones.”

Again, human innovation comes to the rescue. One of the plant’s employees devised a simple liner that goes into each bin, providing a consistent grid surface for the robot. Now the damaged containers don’t throw a wrench into the works.

Another solution to the flexibility challenge is the robots’ ability to maintain multiple programs, so that line changes are fast and easy. With the Red Lion HMI, operators can quickly select the program for any given job, changing the robots over to deal with new part sizes.

Precision and competition
After nearly a year on the assembly line, the Universal Robots are earning their keep at the motor manufacturer. Their ease of deployment and use and their high precision have been exactly what this innovative company needed. And Richard Greene has been excited to help — ensuring that a safety analysis was conducted and helping to address issues and questions.

In highly competitive environments, Universal Robots can give companies a way to fill demanding roles and drive down manufacturing costs — not by reducing the human workforce, but by increasing output and filling in the gaps by performing work that people can’t or aren’t willing to do. Richard Greene can help you bring these concepts to life in real, high-value applications.

Learn more about automating with collaborative robots. Call us at 800-525-4039, email us at, or visit our website.

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