The Fraunhofer IAO has just completed a study of free-standing (i.e. cage-free) robot technology in Germany. Based on case studies in factories already using lightweight robots for manufacturing, the study looked at their experiences with implementing the robots, gaining acceptance from human co-workers, and improving operational efficiency.
The increasingly central role that robots are expected to take in production processes has been receiving a lot of attention in recent years. The experience which the Fraunhofer has been investigating is where the workspaces of humans and robots overlap, and are not separated by cages or protective barriers. It also focused on the costs of entry and questions such as safety and the expectations of managers and co-workers.
In the course of the study Fraunhofer IAO researched cage-free robot use in Germany in industrial companies and in publications. From some 50 applications, 25 were ultimately selected for further investigation and, of these, 18 were taken from personal interviews and 7 from publications. The decisive criterion for selection was that the application was already operating on a production line or that the robots were already being used by several companies.
First and foremost, the study reveals that the new technology works. This was confirmed by all the one-to-one interviews conducted. However, even if the technology itself is not being called into question there are still some uncertainties, for example, regarding new occupational safety standards and guidelines. In addition, the cost of cage-free operation is significantly higher than was initially expected. The study also showed that humans and robots are still primarily working alongside each other in a form of coexistence, with genuine collaborative applications virtually non-existent in production facilities at the moment. Also, given the high purchase costs of a lightweight robot, it is also important to keep the robot busy.
How can companies benefit in the future from current knowledge and experience? One of the outcomes of the interviews was that a consensus that initial obstacles should not deter companies from adopting the technology.
The study is available both as a printed document and as a PDF for download at, here.
Photo credit: Fraunhofer IAO. Material used in the preparation of this article has been drawn from Fraunhofer IAO.