In recent years, the integration of robots into the workplace has become increasingly prevalent. Nadine Reißner, Senior UX Researcher at KUKA, believes that it is time to put the human into focus in the development of robot technologies. For this, one important part is to consider the impact of human-robot interaction on the human. In a workshop at the European Robotics Forum she presents the consortium’s initial findings on this topic.
“The workshop aims to present first results of the analysis of direct cooperation and collaboration between humans and robots and include the participants to work on solutions’, says Nadine Reißner. “With the integration of robots into the workplace, there are various changes that occur on many levels. The work itself changes for the human, social interactions are affected, and task restructures so that robots are the new co-workers. These changes can lead to a negative impact on mental health. However, at KUKA and in the European funded project MindBot, we believe that this must not be solely negative. Instead, we see it as an opportunity to improve mental health for the human.”
To gather data for this project the partners have conducting baseline assessments in three different companies, with a fourth one coming soon. “We observe the interaction between humans and cobots in their natural habitat, not just in a lab-based study. In addition, we have interviewed the observed workers, asking them specific questions about their interactions with Cobots and what we observed during our previous visit.”
Through these interviews and observations, they have identified several main topics that arise in the analysis of human-robot interaction. “One of the most positive findings of the project is that workers reported more positive than negative experiences working with cobots. Many workers felt that they had additional help in the workplace, making their jobs less taxing physically. In one project, cobots allowed people with disabilities to work in a previously able-bodied workspace, empowering them to participate in the workforce.”
The project has also identified communication between humans and robots as an area that needs improvement. “Workers have different ways of communicating with cobots, such as using sound cues or physical gestures, to indicate if the robot has performed a task correctly. Researchers have found that light communication can be used to extend the range of communication and convey different types of messages.”
One of the main areas of focus for the workshop is cobot failure management. The project found that almost all negative experiences with cobots were due to cobot failures. This highlights the need for improved cobot reliability and failure management systems. This way the MindBot Project’s research provides valuable insights into the impact of robots on human well-being. By identifying the potential benefits and risks researchers can develop interventions to improve mental health outcomes for workers.
The study involved observing workers in a manufacturing setting as they worked alongside cobots. The researchers found that the workers not only accepted the cobots as part of the team, but they also interacted with them as if they were human workers. They even threatened with physical gestures, such as a ‘slap in the neck’ to the cobots when they weren’t performing correctly.
“Interestingly, the workers did not report feeling lonely or missing their human coworkers, which suggests that the cobots were able to fill the social void that often comes with automation. However, we also found that the workers experienced stress when the cobots experienced technical failures, even when the failures were not the fault of the cobots themselves. For example, a workpiece that was installed incorrectly could cause the cobot to malfunction, leading to frustration and stress for the workers.”
To address these issues, the researchers are focusing on cobot failure management in their upcoming workshop. The goal is to find ways to minimize the negative experiences associated with cobot failures and improve overall cobot performance. One of the areas of focus is improving communication between humans and robots, specifically using light signals. To facilitate the implementation of cobots in a work process, the study suggests that companies involve workers in the implementation of Cobots from an early stage. This would allow workers to have a say in how the machines are positioned and used, and give them the opportunity to ask questions and receive training.
However, the study also found that companies were sometimes hesitant to give workers more than the necessary information about the machines, fearing that workers might worsen things when trying to fix issues themselves.. This lack of information can lead to frustration and stress for some workers, who would like to be more self-reliable in fixing errors, highlighting the need for clear communication and training.
In conclusion, the study shows that human-robot interactions are complex and nuanced, and that workers can develop emotional attachments to Cobots. While this emotional connection can provide a sense of companionship and teamwork, it cannot help with the negative experiences connected to technical failures. By involving workers in the implementation of Cobots and providing clear communication and training, companies can create a positive and productive working environment for all.