When machines become colleagues

Automotive-sector | Digitalisation and industry 4.0 | Smart factory | In the factories of the future, man and robot will work even more closely together, on one and the same production line. But robots can present a danger to people and are therefore usually locked up. In its Florange steering factory, thyssenkrupp has freed one of its machines. And it’s not just the company that profits, but the workers, too.

 

Florange is in Lorraine in the north of France. Left of the Moselle, near the German border, thyssenkrupp assembles around 35,000 steering systems a day for many large automobile manufacturers. And the number is rising. At the beginning of the year, a special new colleague introduced himself to around 1,200 employees at thyssenkrupp Steering. His name is Yumi. And we can say this about the new guy: Nobody in Florange can lift a metal lid, insert a seal, push another into the other side, put the lid down, and grab another as fast or as accurately as he can. Hardly a dozen moves, but they have what it takes to bring about a new era in automobile production. And that is because Yumi doesn’t have human hands but metal claws. He is a robot.

No fear of contact

That in itself is not revolutionary. But what is revolutionary is that Yumi works right alongside the other employees. And not locked away behind plexiglass like his big brothers a few meters away under strict safety conditions. This makes him one of just five of his kind worldwide. As a pioneer in human-robot collaboration, thyssenkrupp is also testing the robot IIWA: thanks to perfected force sensors, Yumi’s robot colleague can turn screws into casings much easier, faster and much more precise than a human hand ever could.

Productive, intelligent, sensitive

“Robots like Yumi and IIWA free employees from repetitive and burdensome tasks,” says Thierry Hassler, Senior Manager Manufacturing Engineering Supports in Florange. “They also increase productivity by completing these tasks with higher precision and speed.” In both projects, processes are being automated that conventional robot systems would not be able to manage. The robots store and evaluate data during the actual process. This allows products and processes to be specifically optimized. That is something humans cannot do.

Safety is good, getting to know each other is better

Of course, safety is also a primary concern with Yumi. He will shut down if his sensors indicate that he is coming too close to one of his colleagues. And his metal claws are covered with soft plastic, just in case. thyssenkrupp Steering also included the employees in a comprehensive risk analysis. “They brought up points that we hadn’t considered,” confirms the head of the project. Yumi only joined the operation once all the questions were answered and all suggestions checked and implemented, and the 15 employees who work in four shifts directly near Yumi completed advanced training.

New jobs instead of fewer jobs

No employee has yet lost a job in Florange because of Yumi. And Thierry Hassler and his team aim to keep it that way for the next 30 work steps that they have designated suitable for the deployment of robots. Jobs that Yumi could do are to be replaced by newly created jobs. Additional commissions and higher production volumes should make this possible. “In the future, we will need more application technicians,” explains the Head of HR, Fernand Kiren. One of his plans is to retrain employees to fill these positions. But for the foreseeable future, as the first of his kind to work alongside his human colleagues, Yumi will have plenty of lids and seals to keep his claws busy.