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Workplace Mechanization Is The Next Frontier Of The Robot Revolution

For decades, robots and humans were segregated from one another on factory floors. This was never really questioned- after all, these machines generally had very little intelligence of their own; they weren't designed, for example, to know the difference between a car's chassis and a human torso. In order to prevent a tragic accident, it was simply safest to have the humans do their jobs from afar.

Manufacturers GM and BMW - among many, many others - are looking to challenge this norm. These organizations are looking into lightweight materials and new sensors; both of which will allow their engineers to build robots capable of working side-by side with their human counterparts. In the future, some of these new robots might even be wearable.

"Typically, we'd put up big gates to keep people and robots separated," explained General Motors director of Global Manufacturing Scott Whybrew. "But human-safe robotics gives us the ability for robots to work side-by-side with operators." 

According to Fraunhofer IFF research manager Jose Saenz, each agent in a robot-human team would work to account for the weaknesses of the other. The human's capacity to see, touch, feel, and think - qualities which are still either too costly or beyond the current reach of technology to replicate - would operate together with the strength and durability of mechanics.  This is, explains Saenz, the best of both worlds.

"How can you have a robot carrying a load while a person guides it? These are future scenarios that we'll see soon."

Saenz admits that the process of automation and mechanization is anything but risk-free: robots have already been linked to more than 20 fatal accidents in the US this year alone, and even machines designed to work on a human scale could pose a number of potential dangers, such as injury from collisions or stalling in surgical robots. 

To that end, his organization is looking into the amount of force required for a machine to bruise a worked. The idea, explained Saenz, is to set a standard for the automation industry, which has traditionally relied on barriers with automatic power cutoffs - a system which, as we've established already, is on the way out.  See, the fact is, this mechnization doesn't just stop at introducing robots into a human environment...it also includes augmentation. 

Wearable robotic technology will allow humans to accomplish tasks previously known to be impossible, while at the same time reducing the long-term damage caused by manual labor. GM, for example, is working with NASA on a "Robo-Glove" which will significantly increase the strength of the wearer's hand, offering an additional 20 pounds of gripping power with very little effort. The device, which resembles a blue ski glove, could enable workers to load windows into car doors with less strain, and weighs less than two pounds with a separate battery that straps to the user's arm. 

Defense Contractor Lockheed Martin, meanwhile, is adding a slightly more militaristic bent to mechanization, with the development of the Human Universal Load Carrier; a strap-on exoskeleton designed to be used by workers in the United States Millitary. 

Ultiamtely, what Whybrew envisions will come of all this is a world where machines and humans will work together instead of competing with one another. The Robo-Glove is only the first step towards making that happen. Eventually, he hopes to see fully self-reliant robots operating in tandem with human employees.

"If the robot would bump into you, it would say 'hey, excuse me.' It's almost like another person working next to you."