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Safeguarding jobs with robotics

Success story ISAK gGmbH

How the APAS assistant can support severely disabled employees

Some people are uncomfortable with the rising use of robots in production. “Will the robot take away my job?” is one of their concerns. “Can it support me? Is cooperation with robots safe?” are further questions. How much potential lies in the support of employees through collaborative robotics can be seen in the AQUIAS project. Since October 2015, the project is investigating how an APAS assistant can support severely disabled employees in the integration company ISAK gGmbH in Sachsenheim, Germany.

APAS assistant compensates impaired performance

Picture showing an APAS assistant mobile working in collaboration with two severely disabeld people and compensating der lack of range.
The APAS assistant compensates the varying reach of the disabled employees.

First of all, the project team evaluated all ISAK’s work and value-added processes to determine whether they were suited for human-robot collaboration. In spring 2016, the assembly processes for showerhead nozzles were selected as suitable application area. Until then, an employee had to operate a lever press up to 8,000 times per day to press the delicate sieves into the nozzles individually. In the future, the APAS assistant will take over these monotonous and ergonomically challenging press-in operations. Since May 2017, the test installation, where two employees are working directly with the automated production assistant, is being tested and adapted regularly. The employees place the nozzles and sieves on a tool carrier. The APAS assistant uses its gripper to pull the carrier from one of the two tables towards itself, and to push them back to the respective employee after processing. This way the robot compensates their varying reach. The employees take over the final quality control.

Focus on the user

Picture showing ana APAS assistantz mobile, working in collaboration with two severely disabled people and and adapting to the persons' different table heights
The APAS assistant can flexibly adapt to the changing table height.

Bosch developed a relatively simple and cost-efficient solution for semi-automation. Two height-adjustable work tables are equipped with additional sensors to allow them to communicate with the APAS assistant. “Although it seems so unspectacular, the workplace precisely meets the needs of those users who are normally not at the center of attention”, says Wolfgang Pomrehn, product manager of the APAS production assistants. Due to their specific inabilities, the employees require different table heights, which might vary according to their physical condition in the course of a day. The robot can flexibly adapt to this changing table height – even during ongoing production.

Striking the balance between inclusion and efficiency

Participation of disabled people in regular working life, which is desired by the legislator, is not only a challenge for inclusion companies such as ISAK. Social and economic interests often oppose each other. Partial automation can enable people with impaired performance to take part in attractive work. The goal is to improve the competitiveness of inclusion companies in a market that outsources more and more assembly tasks to low wage locations. In the era of industry 4.0 with its changing market requirements, shorter product lifecycles and smaller lot sizes, companies such as ISAK are experiencing more and more planning difficulties.

Long-term customer orders are relatively rare. If the tests prove successful, ISAK could react more flexibly to such changes thanks to its collaborative workplace. “We could also have employees, who were formerly not suited for this task, work in nozzle assembly”, says Thomas Wenzler, managing director of ISAK gGmbH. The APAS assistant would take over press-in operations, which employees with only one arm or hand would not have been able to accomplish at the former hand-lever press.

Picture showing an APAS assistant mobile working in collaboration with a woman in a wheelchair
Partial automation can enable people with impaired performance to take part in attractive work.


Picture showing an APAS assistant mobile, working in collaboration with a woman in a wheelchair and a man standing up

AQUIAS stands for “job quality through individually adapted division of labor between service robots and severely or non-disabled production staff”. In the project, promoted by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, members from science and industry have been researching new ways of human-machine cooperation since October 2015. The individual support of severely disabled staff through production assistants offers participation possibilities for this group of people, as well as learning potential for employees with “standard” performance through robotics. The researchers are from Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering IAO and Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA. Bosch adapts its production assistant to the production environment at ISAK. The experiences from this project will also be transferred to the collaboration between robots and non-disabled employees. Further information about the project, which will be continued until the end of 2018, is available at www.aquias.de.