Meet your Next Co-worker: a Humanoid Robot

The next employee your company hires might not be human. Humanoid robotic workers are now a reality, and they’re already finding their way into workplaces. Lucy Ingham finds out more

How would you feel about your company hiring a robot to work alongside you, not as a tool akin to a computer or piece of machinery, but as a paid-by-the-hour employee with a face and a name?

This may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but for some people, particularly in workshops and factories, this is already a reality.

There are several companies offering such robots for hire, but one with a notable offering in this area is Germany’s pi4_robotics, which not only makes and sells humanoid robots, but also hires them out as staff through its sister company Robozän, at a typical rate of €16 an hour.

Its robot, workerbot, features two arms, a torso and a face, which changes to indicate whether it is operating properly or not, and is primarily used in industry to perform tasks such as parts sorting and inspection, heavy lifting and other repetitive tasks.

“We developed workerbot, which is a humanoid factory worker, and in 2010 we offered the first version of that to the public,” explains pi4_robotics managing director Matthias Krinke.

“We have two workers: a man and a woman. The women, they have an arm length of up to 850mm and a payload of 5kg per arm, and the men, they have up to 1.4m long arms and they can lift up to 12kg.”

The robots already work in a host of factories in Germany, but are increasingly getting into other roles, including company presentations. And somewhat uniquely among robotics companies, pi4 positions these robots as employees, making them feel like colleagues to the human staff. pi4 also has its own robot employees, with a workforce that is nearly 10% non-human.

“We have 50 employees and five robots working here in the company,” says Krinke.  “The robots do presentations, and they do work in the manufacturing process.”

Karl the robot co-worker

In Germany where pi4 is based, robotic co-workers have become increasingly common in certain industries. While the workerbot can be used in a host of scenarios, it has proved particularly popular in one industry: manufacturing.

“Mainly the robots are working in loading and unloading scenarios, and inspecting parts,” says Krinke. “In factories those are the main jobs that we a pursuing at the moment.

“We have a lot of applications in the plastics industry, a lot of our robots work with plastic moulding machines - that is one of our main focuses. One of the reasons is our robots are very quick into the job, and that's very important in the plastic moulding industry because they tend to produce for one week on the machine this product, and the next week something different.”

Krinke gives the example of Karl, a second-generation workerbot who has been tirelessly working for the last 7 years.

Before the robot came here we had three people for each machine: three shifts of three people, so the robot has replaced six workers here

“Karl has been working since 2010 at a washing machine factory, and what he is doing there is grabbing plastic parts, inspecting them and packaging them into trays,” he says.

“Here we have a monocamera system - a one camera system - in the hands, so the robot can look where the parts are detected. So the robot is detecting the parts on the conveyor, grabbing them and putting them into a separate camera system where the quality inspection is done.”

Karl performs a role that many humans would find dull, but which requires absolute focus and accuracy: quality control. Day after day, he inspects plastic covers destined to be installed over the washing machine’s display to ensure they aren’t damaged, scratched or dirty.

Not exactly the most important role in the factory, but one which has to be done to ensure quality remains high. And by employing a robot, Karl’s company has not only ensured consistency but has also saved a significant amount of money compared to hiring humans to do the job.

“Karl has been working 24/7 since 2012,” says Krinke. “Before the robot came here we had three people for each machine: three shifts of three people, so the robot has replaced six workers here.”

Accepting a robot as a colleague

With their ability to do certain jobs more cheaply than humans, many people would be understandably weary about having a humanoid robot installed in the next cubicle over, particularly in small companies where a robot is a totally new concept for the business.

“At the moment we have one robot which will be delivered next week to a small company, it’s the first robot in the company, so therefore they have the emotional step to bring the robot into the company,” Krinke says. “I think it helps if you have a robot with a nice personality.

“And from a technical side we need to adapt the robot to the task and you need only a little change to the workspace. In small companies I think the emotional step to bring a robot in is a bit higher than in the big companies because they usually already have a robot and are used to it.”

It’s part of our marketing strategy to have humanoid robots with a gender. They also have names: the full name is given by the owner

In order to aid acceptance in these small companies, pi4 has made number of choices to ensure that the workerbots are accepted by their human counterparts, giving the robots a feel closer to a less witty Bender than the fearsome HAL.

“It’s part of our marketing strategy to have humanoid robots with a gender. They also have names: the full name is given by the owner, and we ask them to do that,” he explains. “The idea is that if a company is hiring a robot or buying a robot then they ask their employees to discuss what the name of the robot will be and depending on if it’s a woman or a man then they decide the full name.”

While rudimentary, this approach makes a huge difference to how employees feel about the robot, allowing them to accept it as part of the team, rather than a threat to their own positions.

 “My experience is that since we do that the employees of the companies get a better feeling towards the robot, and they say 'ok, this is Karl' and everybody waves to Karl and they are happy that he is there,” says Krinke. “So for the feeling of a human employee it’s better. It's a small thing, but it works.”

In addition, the robot is also designed to be easy to understand, with its face not only providing a human feel, but offering easy to understand feedback. When the robot is smiling, its colleagues know instantly that it is operating properly, but if it looks sad it’s clear that maintenance is required.

“The face is not only to have a nice personality, the face is also feedback for the robot, so everybody understands 'ok, this robot is looking happy',” he says. “You get immediate feedback of the situation in the setting and you don't need to read a manual.”

Soon, there will be even more human-like interaction, with the integration of full speech.

“At the moment we have no speech recognition integrated; we will have that at the end of the year, and next year the robot will be able to answer questions immediately and not only answers that are verified beforehand.”

Not-so-collaborative robots

While the workerbots are accepted by their co-workers as colleagues, the work they do is separate from the humans that occupy the same space as them. This may come as a surprise to those who have read countless articles about the wonders of collaborative humanoid robots, however according to Krinke, these simply aren’t at the stage where they can be beneficial while also safe.

“Collaboration is at the moment, from my point of view, still something that needs a lot of research,” he says. “If they were to work very close together, then due to physics the robot would have to work quite slowly.”

Collaboration is only possible if it’s through circumstance, therefore we have uncollaborative robots because they have to do fast work in a short time

In particular, any robots working in the same space as humans would need to be forever stopping to prevent human injury, undermining their value in working on repetitive tasks.

“Even if you had a small robot, having something sharp in its hand would kill you,” he says. “Collaboration is only possible if it’s through circumstance, therefore we have uncollaborative robots because they have to do fast work in a short time.”

However, this is not to say that the collaborative dream is dead, more that it remains on the horizon.

“I think for real interesting collaboration in the industrial environment, we need much more time to have quicker sensory equipment and to have some kind of predictive sensors to understand what would happen to work fast enough,” he says, adding that cases where it does work at present largely involve lifting, and are not so time-sensitive.

“Usually for lifting heavy stuff, where the human is really grabbing the robot and having some kind of security switch in the hand, there it’s ok because it’s slower, because the main focus is on helping the human to lift something heavy. But if you put parts together, load a machine, then you really need to be quick; we're talking here about cycle times between 0.5 seconds and up to 15 seconds.”

However, while the robots work separately, they are still part of the factory environment, sitting in the heart of the action, just in an area fenced off to ensure safety.

“What we try to do from the point of view of collaboration is to bring them into different spaces, where the human is safe from the robot, and therefore the human can work quickly and the robot can work quickly.”

The face of the future?

It’s clear that while the workerbot is good enough for real-world use, this is by no means the pinnacle of humanoid robotic working, and as more advances are made, there may be other tasks robots like Karl can take on.

However, this will understandably prompt concern from those who fear losing their jobs to robots, and with good reason: the workerbot can already do some jobs better than humans, and so has in some cases been employed instead of human workers.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to blame the companies that opt for a robot when it’s the cheapest and most efficient option. They save money, which ultimately results in cheaper goods for us to buy, and asking a business not to take steps to be more efficient is inherently fairly pointless.

Robots are taking jobs – albeit the repetitive roles than few of us aspire to – and trying to stop that from happening would be like trying to prevent the tide coming in.  Instead, we must embrace the changing world around us, and find ways to make ourselves part of it alongside robots like Karl.

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