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Not without my Robbie!

Can cobots make workers happier? This is one of the questions being investigated by the MindBot project. Together with partners from research and industry, KUKA is looking at people and their mental health.

Romy Schoenwetter
July 24, 2022
Reading Time: 4 min.
The cobot market is booming and will continue to grow significantly until 2030. It is expected to be worth up to 8 billion US dollars by then – according to Robotics and Automation News. The advantages are obvious: collaborative, user-friendly, versatile. But what consequences will the use of cobots have on the motivation and well-being of employees? And what social challenges does this pose for small and medium-sized enterprises?

For improved human-robot interaction

These questions gave rise to the EU-funded MindBot project. Since January 2020, KUKA has been working with European partners from research and industry to investigate what this relationship looks like in the context of human-robot collaboration (HRC) and Industry 4.0. The MindBot team is to gain insights into real everyday working life with Cobot via a total of six companies and their applications. One of them is Ford, where "Robbie" and Dietmar Brauner are working together.
MindBot logo

The future of work

When Dietmar talks about his new colleague at Ford, he smiles. Because "Robbie," as he affectionately calls him, supports him on the assembly line for engine blocks. Together they press in covers for variable camshaft adjusters. This is not a matter of course for Dietmar: Health problems have meant that he can only move his shoulder and wrist to a limited extent. A setback for the passionate car mechanic. But with Robbie's help, a KUKA LBR iiwa, he can continue his almost 30-year career.

This example is one of many that show how cobots support the future of work. Even more: they can have a positive impact on the well-being of employees. "Artificial intelligence and Industry 4.0 technology is becoming a bigger and bigger topic," says Meike Groh, Disability Manager at Ford. "However, the focus is not always on the interaction between humans and machines. That's exactly what makes MindBot so interesting for us. "

The research will also involve individuals affected by autism spectrum disorder as project consultants: They make an important contribution to understanding how to better utilize their workforce in Industry 4.0 when working together with new robotic technologies.

Healthier together

However, MindBot does not only want to promote the mental health of workers. It is also about developing technologies that react appropriately to negative stress experiences. To record these, participants like Dietmar Brauner wear a smartwatch that measures mental stress and stress relief. The collaborative MindBot can evaluate the data and thus adapt its behavior to the colleague in the best possible way. The goal in the project: an add-on for the cobot. This is to help the human with various strategies to maintain attention and concentration. In addition, the add-on is planned to provide interaction options that go beyond the operating options of the KUKA smartPAD.
The KMR iiwa fills a shelve autonomously, an example for industry 4.0
In the future, an add-on for the cobot will help to strengthen the attention and concentration of employees.

Experience with the cobot

Even that is not all. The project will also produce guidelines for the design of production environments and for a "mental-health-friendly" cobot. Initial results from interviews show that workers view the cobot as a supporter. By sharing tasks, users report time, mental and physical relief. Negative experiences? There are some. They are largely related to errors that cause the cobot to stop working. "So there is an opportunity here," says Nadine Reißner, KUKA Senior Analyst of Social Impact of Robotics. "By improving human-robot interaction specifically when errors occur, negative reactions can be reduced, further optimizing collaboration. "

Ford has found the cooperation with KUKA to be consistently positive: "There were always prompt answers, comprehensible and binding," reports Meike Groh. "Our contact persons were helpful at all times. This is – in addition to the application potential  also a reason why we would now like to support phase 3 of the project." In the final, third phase of MindBot, KUKA will use a specially developed avatar. It will test how this further improves the interaction between cobot and human.

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