December 3, 2018

Robots can make some human workers uncomfortable

Melanie Epp | Contributing Writer

Some 50 years ago the automotive industry saw the writing on the wall. Labor was getting harder to find, so they replaced humans on the factory line with robotics. Robotics, it would seem, don’t tire, don’t require breaks and can’t go on strike. What’s more, they take on tedious tasks that humans don’t enjoy doing.

“They (companies in the automotive industry) don’t rely on human labor that much anymore,” said FTNON Delft Director Richard Van der Linde in a talk at Fruit Logistica earlier this year. “Please don’t mistake me. There is no unemployment in the big cities where these robots make cars. People are still needed, but on a much higher level.”

People, Van der Linde pointed out, are much better at supervising and making sure the factory runs 24/7. Robots are the perfect fit for those hard-to-fill tasks that humans don’t enjoy taking on.

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Although robots take on those undesirable tasks, they’re not always welcome on the factory floor. A big issue companies face when robots do enter the workplace is social acceptance.

“In your factory the people who work may feel threatened by a robot,” Van der Linde said. “He’s going to steal my job — that’s the first thing that a human thinks.”

The problem is so bad in some factories, Van der Linde said, that some workers steal parts, intentionally slowing or halting production in protest to the robots’ presence. Van der Linde said to deal with this they place cameras in the factories for a few months until the robots are accepted.

“Then the workforce doesn’t see it as competition, but as a colleague,” he said. “The robot is there to help me.”

In fact, Ven der Linde said, robots and humans can enhance production when they work together. Humans fatigue and get bored when robots do not, but humans have the ability to catch errors that robots cannot.

“What we’ve learned in the last year is that the most perfect solution is the marriage of humans and robots,” he said. “If you have them both in your line, and they both work optimally, you have the maximum quality and output of the line.”

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