He’s called YuMi, he has two arms, and he is a robot. He is set to permanently change the way people and machines work together.
Man and machine are not irreconcilable opposites and it is not a matter of either-or. The working model of the future will be one of natural collaboration. Machines can do some things better than people can, such as monotonous routine work, which can be tedious and even dangerous.
That gives people the space and time we need to dedicate ourselves to more interesting tasks. “Automation raises our standard of living,” says scientist Roland Siegwart, who teaches robotics at the renowned ETH or Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.
The robot called YuMi represents a major step in human-machine collaboration. YuMi – from “you and me” – is the result of ten years of development by specialists at ABB. In the past, people and robots did their work separately in industrial manufacturing, where clumsy machines were big and “insensitive” and threatened people’s safety.
But YuMi not only looks friendly it is sensitive to touch and works so accurately with its two arms that it is able to thread a needle. It works hand-in-hand with humans. For instance, YuMi can do some of the work involved in assembling mobile phones. But if processes requiring more sophisticated fine-motor skills and demand the human touch, then people can step in. The robot is equipped for its share of the work with a powerful controller, flexible gripper hands, and a visual system that enables it to reliably recognize the different parts it needs to assemble.
This two-armed robot was especially developed for assembling small parts in the electronics industry – parts in products like watches, tablet computers, and mobile phones. This area of industrial production is growing at a remarkable rate and demands a high degree of flexibility. Rapid growth and ever-shorter product life cycles (think smartphones) pose challenges for manufacturers. That is why a flexible, mobile, highly developed robot is a very welcome coworker indeed. YuMi allows manufacturers to produce equipment more quickly, more efficiently, and of a higher quality. Improved automation means less waste produced and higher flexibility. In short, manufacturers get more for their money. But YuMi is intended not only as an economic growth stimulator. YuMi makes work safer and more enjoyable for the people with whom it works, while for consumers this man-machine collaboration ultimately results in products of higher quality and greater durability. An examination of the approximately hundred-year history of industrialization shows that automation, of whatever kind, has not deprived people of work. On the contrary: the steam locomotive may have ousted horse-drawn vehicles, but today there are more and more train and truck drivers and there is work for an increasing number of people. Life expectancy has more than tripled since 1800, and prosperity is many times greater in today’s Western Europe than it was at the onset of industrialization and automation.
Time to reflect
Machines have gradually relieved people of certain types of work, giving us time to reflect on how to make life better for everyone. Robots do not rob us of work, they simply do the things they should have done long ago. Take transport, for example: people become tired, they get distracted by thoughts, and so they make mistakes. Computers may not be entirely free of faults but they can be much more reliable than people. ETH researcher Siegwart cites the example of radar and camera systems in cars that can recognize pedestrians, other vehicles, traffic signs and safety lines – and do so very consistently. These functions make our lives as drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists easier and above all safer. In terms of the history of the industrial revolution, a robot like YuMi represents a single chapter, which has only just begun. Today, these rugged and robust machines perform much more than simple, dull and menial tasks such as hammering, soldering or welding. Our new, computer-controlled colleagues are reliable and sensitive partners. As in every good marriage each allows their better half to employ its strengths to the full. Sure, there might be conflicts, but human-machine partnerships will make the world a better place – or the world of work at the very least.