Worker death draws attention to next gen collaborative robots

A worker was killed by an industrial robot at a Volkswagen plant in Germany. It was a rare accident, but it has put a new class of collaborative robots in the spotlight.

A worker was killed by an industrial robot at a Volkswagen plant in western Germany last week.

wirecrafters-robot-machine-guarding.jpg

The 21-year-old, who was not a Volkswagen employee, according to a company spokesman, was part of a two-man team installing the stationary robot in the plant. The young man was struck by the robot's arm and pressed against a metal plate, according to the Financial Times. He died of his injuries soon after.

A death involving an industrial robot -- or any robot -- is bound to raise hackles, but the accident was almost certainly a case of a tragic error on the part of the technicians. During normal operation, these sorts of task-specific heavy industrial bots operate inside safety cages and well away from workers. The technician was apparently inside the cage when the accident occurred. According to a statement released by Volkswagen, the robot did not malfunction, and a second technician who was standing just outside the cage was not injured.

upload3480.jpg

But the accident comes at a moment when manufacturers are dramatically rethinking how they deploy and utilize industrial robots. A new generation of collaborative robots has emerged in the last two years, and aside from being more versatile than the kind of robot that killed the worker, the new bots promise increased safety over their task-specific predecessors.

The primary feature that makes collaborative robots from companies like Universal Robots, Rethink Robotics, and ABB safe is their ability to avoid unwanted collisions and, using high accuracy torque sensors, to recognize when they've bumped into something or someone they shouldn't have. This capability allows the bots to function outside of safety cages and alongside humans, which opens up new productivity potential for industrial manufacturers. The robots can learn complex tasks and then act as a second pair of dexterous hands to augment the capabilities of skilled workers.

Automation is increasing in industries like automotive and electronics manufacturing and making speedy inroads in order fulfillment warehouses. As prices for task versatile platforms fall, small- and mid-sized manufacturers are starting to employ robots. Even so, a plausible future that sees robots replacing industrial workers entirely is far on the horizon, and in the meantime, with the economics favoring a hybrid approach, safety is of primary concern.

Ironically, Volkswagen has been an early adopter of collaborative technology. In 2013, the company installed the lightweight, six-axis UR5 arm from Universal Robots in a plant in Germany. The project was an early test of the feasibility of augmenting a skilled human workforce by closely integrating smart, safe autonomous robots.

"By using robots without guards, [employees] can work together hand in hand with the robot," project manager Jürgen Häfner said in a press release about the project. "In this way, the robot becomes a production assistant in manufacture and as such can release staff from ergonomically unfavorable work."

Volkswagen spokesman Heiko Hillwig stressed that the robot was not one of the new generation of lightweight collaborative robots.

Automaker BMW has also tested collaborative robots, and both companies have indicated they will expand their use of the new technology in the years ahead, particularly as Baby Boomers retire and industrial unions lose strength, opening up new possibilities for automation.

For the time being, task-specific heavy industrial robots, such as the one involved in the accident last week, still compose the vast majority of robotic systems in auto making, which has long been the industry with the highest penetration of industrial robots in the world.

NOTE: An earlier version of this article incorrectly named Universal Robotics as a manufacturer of collaborative industrial robots. The company's name is Universal Robots.