What’s Next to Interact with Industrial Robots


Enabling human interaction with industrial robots

The workhorses of leading manufacturing facilities are industrial robots. Industrial robots date backing to the 1960s, and they haven’t changed much. They often look like a human arm, called articulated robots, and perform tasks such as welding, painting, and material handling. These robots are installed in a fixed location on the factory floor and rarely move over their lifespan. They are often surrounded by metal cages and have blaring alarms so that humans do not get close to them while they are in operation. Despite their flaws, they are so incredibly productive that nearly 2 million robots are in use across the world’s factories. This large demand and install base has made small details such as ‘cable-path optimization’ a worthwhile problem to solve and new business models such as robots-as-a-service to emerge. These types of robots will likely remain in service for decades to come, but robot feature composition may change considerably.

Typical industrial robots lack one killer feature: human interaction. An operator can interact with a robot by pressing an on-off switch or selecting between a few modes of operation, but they cannot tell the robot what to do. That remains accessible only to a skilled programmer accessing the control system with their computer. For process steps such as welding and painting, setting up the robot once and letting it perform the operation millions of times is valuable while limiting. For products desiring a human touch to personalize, some human interaction is needed in order to work alongside the robot.

Human computer interaction research began in the 1950s. This research has compounded into incredible consumer electronics such as the Apple iPhone and Amazon Alexa. By comparison, industrial human computer interaction technologies have lagged behind. Due to the harsh environments and the safety requirements industrial equipment must operate within, many of the same technologies that work in a consumer product are not feasible in industry.

However, a new focus on human-machine interaction has begun due to recent advances in robotic technology. Cobots are being applied to “to improve the efficiency and versatility of factories” and are at core of Industry 5.0. Emerging startups such as Micropsi Industries are raising millions to “retrain industrial robots using human demonstrations” through a technique called imitation learning. Elsewhere in machine learning research, Google and Everyday Robots is teaching robots to follow verbal instructions. They even found that “periodic human interventions are a simple but important technique for achieving good performance.” Sounds just like training humans! Enabling robots to respond to human feedback in industrial environments will unlock the next wave of exponential growth for industrial robots.

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🔖 Topics: digital twin

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