July 24, 2009 To compete worldwide, European manufacturers have to compensate for an older, higher-paid, and better-protected workforce. A European research programme has prototyped an automated workstation to safely boost worker productivity.
Manufacturers know that modern factories have to be fast and flexible to compete in the international marketplace. Whether they are making automobiles, aeroplanes or advanced electronics, manufacturers must be able to modify existing products, develop new ones, and move them quickly from the drawing board to the marketplace.
A key component of such modern factories is the flexible production cell – a workstation staffed by a worker with the training and tools to carry out a variety of operations and to shift quickly from one task to another.
In theory, flexible production stations can combine the speed, precision, and error-free performance of a robotic workstation with a skilled human worker’s ability to modify or re-configure a process quickly and easily.
While it is highly desirable, such seamless integration of people and machines is still in its infancy.
CyberManS (for Cybernetic Manufacturing Systems) is an EU-funded research initiative that has taken two important steps towards that goal.
The CyberManS consortium has built a prototype intelligent work assistant device, or IWAD, that supports smooth interaction between a human operator and an automated assistant, and developed software that helps protect the health and safety of the human operator.
Worker safety from the start
Alessandro Levizzari, from FIAT’s Research Centre and the coordinator of CyberManS, emphasises that in Europe, ergonomics – the physical and procedural factors that impact worker comfort, health and safety – must come first.
“Our philosophy is to have knowledge and awareness of the ergonomics not at the end of the process but at the start,” he says. “It’s important to anticipate the ergonomic evaluation of the workplace from the design phase on.”
Daimler, one of the consortium’s 11 partners, took the lead in developing a new software interface to facilitate good ergonomic design from the earliest phases of a project.
The interface brings together most of the tools – including a database of potential risk factors and current guidelines – needed to ensure that a new manufacturing process can be carried out by a worker in a safe and sustainable way. In addition, the software supports the collection and interpretation of video and electromyography data as a worker carries out a real or simulated task.
Electromyography measures and records patterns of muscle activity, and can help determine if a task demands overly intense or prolonged muscle activation.
The software package also includes ways of comparing the costs of different manufacturing and ergonomic approaches.
“What is new,” says Levizzari, “is to contain all of these in one interface, and to have that available when you are thinking about your plant and your workplaces.”
Humans and robots working together
The CyberManS team believes that developing IWADs is critical to the success of European manufacturing. Combining the skills of all of their industrial and academic partners, the project developed a prototype IWAD aimed at facilitating fast and accurate welding operations under realistic conditions.
The workstation consists of a manipulator some four metres high, plus an automated welding gun equipped with haptic and vision systems.
In addition to reducing the operator’s physical effort, the welding gun uses optical sensors to provide intuitive, tactile feedback.
Levizzari explains that in many manufacturing operations, for example building a car, welds have to be made at precise locations, some of which may be out of sight and can only be reached in a particular way.
His team designed their prototype IWAD in part to help the operator guide the welding gun to its target efficiently.
“If the operator tries to move the welding gun in the wrong direction, the gun becomes harder and harder to move,” says Levizzari. “Until now, that kind of advanced feedback didn’t exist on the traditional welding gun.”
Three months of testing at the FIAT research centre showed that the prototype IWAD helped human welders work faster, more accurately, and with less effort.
Levizzari is encouraged by the consortium’s initial results, but makes it clear that further work is needed.
He emphasises that they have just begun to evaluate the potential benefits of their products to worker health and safety, as well as to fast and flexible productivity.
“We have shown that these are good ideas, and that they can help European workers and manufacturers,” he says. “But now it is important to see if it is possible to develop similar systems throughout European industry.”
The CyberManS initiative received funding from the ICT strand of the EU’s Sixth Framework Programme for research.
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