Drives & Controls April 2024

A STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION? You may have noticed that humanoid robots are a bit of a theme in this issue. There appears to be something of a perfect storm at the moment with several factors combining to propel these walking wonders into our factories and warehouses. The robots and their components are getting cheaper, their technologies are becoming more sophisticated (partly driven by AI), they are attracting substantial investments, and they oer a possible answer to labour shortages, potentially replacing human workers directly in many tasks. Or, at least, that’s what the enthusiasts would have you believe. But there are many hurdles to overcome before we nd armies of humanoids tramping around our production plants. For a start, potential users will need to be convinced that the humanoid robots are reliable and – above all – safe. Humanoids may be very impressive at demonstrating their party tricks in pristine laboratory conditions, but will they perform as well in dirty, complex, unpredictable factories? These are extremely complex machines, some with more than 70 degrees of freedom and multiple potential points of failure. It may be that fully articulating hands with individually controllable nger joints will be an overkill for most industrial applications and that simpler grippers will su†ce, and will prove more reliable than trying to replicate delicate human hands. Safety will be essential if humanoid robots are to share workspaces with humans. If any incidents do occur, they will be splashed across news media around the world within hours. Any fatalities could stop the humanoids in their tracks, setting the technology back for many years – perhaps forever. But if the humanoids can be shown to operate reliably and safely, they have many potential attractions, one of which is that they will be operating in environments designed for similarly-shaped human workers. Few changes will be needed to existing plants to accommodate the mechanical workforce. And unlike AMRs or AGVs, they can cope with inconveniences such as stairs. It will be interesting to see how human employees react to the arrival of the automated co-workers. Will the robots’ anthropomorphic form make them more acceptable, or will they be seen as a bigger threat than traditional robots? At present, most of the humanoids are being developed by relatively small start-ups, rather than industrial automation giants. The large players are no doubt watching developments closely and if they see potential threats (or opportunities) for their businesses, they will want to get into the humanoid market at an early stage – probably by acquiring existing players. No doubt, over the coming years, we’ll be seeing lots of videos of mishaps as humanoid robots attempt to move into their new industrial environments, but if their proponents are correct, they could become a common sight in the manufacturing landscape within a decade. Tony Sacks, Editor n COMMENT