Trying to squeeze into tight spaces, carrying out highly repetitive tasks and living with back injuries: these everyday realities of working in aviation construction will soon be over. By bringing robots onto the factory floor to carry out the uncomfortable and tedious tasks, the EU-funded project VALERI hopes to place a higher value on human know-how. Seven partners, including Airbus, from Spain, Germany and Austria are building a working laboratory prototype and will test it in a factory setting by 2015.
Car manufacturers have been using stationary robots to help build their products for years, but airplanes are constructed differently, posing challenges to the use of robotics. Until now, the manner in which planes are built and put together has meant that shifts of workers carry out assembly and inspection. "If we can solve the very complicated technical hurdles that prevent widespread uptake of robots in production, we can free-up people to work on the more value-added work," explains José Saenz, the project coordinator and an engineer at the Fraunhofer Institute for Factory Operation and Automation.
Researchers are working on ‘mobile manipulators’ that will be able to access small spaces and to work on similar tasks in multiple locations.
Producing high quality work safely
Not only will the robots have to work with high precision but they will need to do so while moving around humans. Currently in the manufacturing sector, robots have been separated from the people working on the shop floor. "We have to make sure we have the necessary technology in place to make collaboration possible," says José Saenz. Tactile sensors and computer vision will permit sophisticated programming designed to stop a robot in its tracks should there be any chance of danger.
Robots will pass over what they have done with a camera to inspect their results, verifying that everything has been carried out to the necessary standard. "The results need to be as good, or better, than those achieved by humans," he adds.
Preserving human resources
The potential benefits are clear. Repetitive strain injuries and back problems requiring sick leave, or even early retirement, can be avoided. An ageing workforce with valuable expertise can be preserved as physically demanding tasks are farmed out to machines. The cost of production can be kept competitive, ensuring manufacturing isn’t outsourced to cheaper markets.
The concept is still in the laboratory phase, but if all goes well, robots would be phased in gradually. "No one is suddenly going to lose their jobs," highlights José Saenz. On the contrary, the robots would allow people to stay in work longer. "Expertise and knowhow can be more highly valued," he adds.
The project is getting direct input from the factory floors of Airbus and Austrian FACC (two of the partners in the project) as people say what tasks they would like their robot co-workers to handle. "We want to make robots that will work alongside humans, doing the things humans don’t want to do, to free up the people to do the brain work."
Vice-President of the European Commission , responsible for the Digital Agenda, says: "We are joining forces with top industrial companies and research institutions to develop more efficient and sustainable production. New technologies are not only making Europe more competitive on the global stage, they also enable people to develop new skills for better jobs".