For years, robots are seen as the enemy of assembly line workers. They are often regarded as replacements for real people working on jobs because they never complain, don't tire, and don't have emotions to deal with.
But Ford doesn’t believe that robots can completely replace humans in car production. The company believes they can assist them – case in point, Robbie, a collaborative robot or cobot, designed to aid assembly line workers with disability and reduced mobility.
Gallery: Ford Employs Robot To Help Workers With Disability
Robbie was an award-winning research project, designed to show that disabled people and those with reduced mobility could take on jobs in manufacturing without the need for protective devices or safety barriers.
The project was supported by RWTH Aachen University and the Landschaftsverband Rheinland (LVR), the largest service provider for disabled people in Germany. LVR provided €372,000 (around $399,000) in funding.
Dietmar Brauner was worried that his 30-year career with Ford would be over because of recurring health issues, which resulted in reduced mobility in his shoulder and wrist. Now, he's found a new buddy with Robbie, with the cobot aiding him on a wider range of tasks.
Robbie and Brauner work together in attaching circular covers to engines. The latter places two covers in the holders and prompts the cobot to pick each one up and press them firmly into place. Of note, Robbie only moves when activated by Brauner and has sensors that detect when his hands or fingers might be in the way.
Robbie the cobot went on an 18-month trial before becoming a permanent part of the team. It's created to collaborate with people with limited mobility and disabled people by taking on duties that would otherwise be difficult or impossible for them. Now that Robbie's permanent, Ford could install more cobots in its production plants to broaden the working opportunities to a more diverse range of people.