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Cobots, and stationary or mobile robots: how can they be integrated?

Industrial robotics is not recent, but it has developed substantially over recent years: with the arrival of cobotics (collaborative robotics) and the appearance of new types of robots in companies (self-guided automatic vehicles, self-learning machines, etc.). Although they can help improve competitiveness, cobots and stationary or mobile robots are obliged to cohabit in a suitable industrial environment. But this is not necessarily self-evident. 

How are these robots then used? What are they changing in industry and for the ways people work? How are they chosen and integrated? On 6 March several industrial companies provided answers to these questions, during a round table discussion organised at Global Industrie Lyon, hosted by Thierry Pigot, Editor in Chief of the magazine Jautomatise.




The most noteworthy development of robotics over recent years is that robotics has emerged from its "cage" and is now working with human beings, stresses Nathalie Julien, a University Lecturer and corporate relations manager of ENSIBS (Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Ingénieurs de Bretagne Sud), and the author of the work The factory of the future: strategies and deployment. From this collaboration between human beings and machines cobotics has arisen, which is a new conception of workstations, even a new vision of work itself. 

This analysis is shared by Jean-François Thibault, manager of Safran group's Ergonomics programme, for whom cobots are fundamentally changing working activity. He distinguishes three types of cobots, all of which are used by Safran, which is the third-largest world aeronautics equipment manufacturer: 


  • colocated cobots, which can work independently of the operator, who becomes involved only, for example, during the product's finishing phase, 


  • cobots which interact with operators, to measure parts, for example, implying substantial ergonomics work, 


  • and tele-operated robots, used in particular in operations with chemicals, where it is important to keep human beings at a distance, and who therefore operate them remotely. 


The rule is to maximise the operator's added value, in order to release them from several tasks, especially if they are arduous, and of course to increase productivity. 




Sébastien Béal, Managing Director of the Sevrey site, one of Amazon's five logistics warehouses in France, explains that the robots he uses, which look like large autonomous vacuum cleaners, let him store 50% of additional inventory stocks in a given logistics warehouse area. One zone is dedicated to their circulation and another, which is physically separate, to the employees' activities. Each robot, which weighs 350 kilograms and can carry loads of 150 kilograms, moves freely within the field dedicated to it, takes the cabinets where the products are stored, and moves them to the operators' picking stations. The result is a densification of the inventory (and therefore an improvement of the range offered to the client), and a reduction of the cycle time, which enables the employees to devote themselves to higher added-value activities, such as quality-checking or packaging. 




Jérôme Bertin, Coordination and Development Manager at Aract (Regional agency for improvement of working conditions in Auvergne Rhône-Alpes), has worked on the human factor in future industry, particularly in cases of high robotisation. His research, undertaken principally for SMEs and MMCs, shows that robotisation meets a twin goal:


  • increased productivity, reliability and quality, 

  • improved safety for operators, whom they relieve from arduous activities, meaning that they can be reassigned to added-value tasks. 


The concern is that the SME often considers a robot, to which it has committed substantial investments, as a technical tool which it adds to a production line, or which simply replaces it, without realising that it is necessary to completely overhaul industrial organisation. This lack of strategic development leads to defective project management, which is necessarily disappointing when delivered, economically: reduced machine occupation rates, increased salary and maintenance costs, increased scrappage rates, etc. 

Nathalie Julien (ENSIBS) shares this opinion. Robots are not merely objects which are installed. Operators, who are often poorly informed, fear their impact. They must be informed of what is planned, and of the reasons, and it must of course be stressed that the aim is to improve the employees' working conditions, and to support them during the transition, whilst understanding their needs. 




At Jacquemet, an SME which specialises in metal wire working, the tasks which have been automated are indeed the "thankless" tasks, the aim being to improve working conditions, confirms Jordane Riva, the group's Industrialisation Manager. It took several months for the first robot to be accepted by the employees, although all of them had been informed of this decision by the general management. But after this the plan met with success, as the company, equipped with 9 machines, is currently working on 25 robotics subjects.

To set up the fifteen or so cobotics projects currently pending at Safran, work had to be done to develop a real change management strategy, adds Jean-François Thibault. Even a large group like his got "tied up in knots" with the first models, experiencing the difficulties mentioned by Jérôme Bertin. With robotisation, indeed, questions of working organisation become involved, but also of how future work is represented. Something which is still too often summed up by the idea that machines will work completely independently, and will steal our jobs from us.  But the reason cobotics is being implemented is precisely to keep the operator's added value: without it there would be robots everywhere! An operator needs some ten years of experience to know how to install an aircraft engine: it is therefore necessary to know how this employee can be retained, assisting them with certain tasks so that their expertise can be applied optimally. 

To overcome these prejudices, and to optimise the process, Safran has therefore established a collaborative design strategy, to construct collaboratively what operators' future activity will be with the cobots. It has made use of a platform of the CEA [Atomic Energy Commission] and scientific experts in robotics, ergonomics and cognitics to develop a successful interface between machine and operator. Suppliers and start-ups are also included in the discussion process: cobotics involves the new technologies, and requires modules to be assembled which may be mature independently, but not when used together. They must therefore be assembled in a mature manner, using a platform. 




Sébastien Béal concurs with the other participants' analysis: robots are not an end in themselves, and must be part of a global strategy of modification of production or delivery, giving employees more satisfaction, and delivering better quality of service. When the group began to deploy the Amazon Robotics programme in Europe in early 2016 it had 40,000 employees; it now has 83,000. The robots enabled growth, and therefore employment, to be supported. 

Jérôme Bertin (Aract) notes, indeed, that that was one of the great surprises of his survey of robotisation in SMEs: he was expecting a negative employment impact; in fact it proved to be positive, or at worst zero. One of the main reasons is indeed that people's activity becomes focused on a precious form of expertise which has been acquired over the years, as in the case of Safran. Operators' fears consequently dissipated very quickly.




For this process to be successful Nathalie Julien advises, before making these major changes, that there should be a dialogue with the employees, to inform them and to dispel their fears. Above all, operators' needs in the operational sites must be ascertained. Laboratories and academics can also support the companies, so that they are able to test solutions, do the groundwork, and study the feasibility of their project with both technicians and ergonomists. 

Jérôme Bertin stresses that in Auvergne Rhône Alpes, and indeed elsewhere, SMEs can also be supported by the Region. There are programmes devoted to future industry, which enable consideration for strategy, and also allow companies to work on digitisation, work organisation and performance. The Region pays for 50 to 80% of the project's overall cost. Organisations such as BPI also offer financing, and DIRECCTE also has a support programme. Companies can consequently activate many systems. Competitiveness hubs, and the regional agencies of French Fab, are also available and can, at minimum, provide information for industrial companies. 




Of 175 Amazon warehouses throughout the world, 25 are currently equipped with cobots and robots which cohabit in line with the activities, stresses Sébastien Béal. The first French site will open in 2019. This is therefore just the very start, and many projects are in the pipeline. 

At Safran we are also just starting, Jean-François Thibault says. Cobotics is a strategic area for the deployment of future industry in the group. It has 60 projects currently dedicated to these technologies. For the moment the aeronautics equipment manufacturer is continuing with the deployment of traditional robotics, but less emphatically, and of cobotics, which costs less than a fully automated unit, and which is more flexible.

At Jacquemet a line is often first tested with cobots, before potentially changing to a standard robotics solution to increase speed.

As Nathalie Julien stresses, this is just the start. Multiple technological possibilities are yet to be discovered. If the human element and quality of work are kept centre-stage, some segments of activity will recover the attractiveness and excellence which they lost a long time ago, where there will be a place for everyone.