Are Human Workers Serving Robots?

A tortilla manufacturer increased automation successfully, calling on robots to check the tortilla packages before sending them on a conveyor to the next station. Unfortunately, the tortillas got rejected when the temperature dropped — somehow they just didn’t look right to the robot. The machine also rejected packages if a tortilla’s edge rolled under. Since robots don’t munch on quesadillas, it seemed, they couldn’t tell a good tortilla from a bad one.

The solution for tortillas could be X-ray technology, allowing robots to distinguish a real problem from a surface difference in appearance. In the meantime, human workers have to come around and re-check the rejected tortillas.

A retail robot was supposed to alert human workers to floor hazards. Unfortunately, the floor hazard robots couldn’t tell the difference between an actual hazard requiring cleanup and something that couldn’t pose a hazard if it tried. They would decide that a fallen bit of grape stem was a hazard, and call human workers to clean them up.

It’s bad enough to have a super-picky human being telling you what to do. A machine that beeps frantically until you pick up a minuscule crumb — that’s even worse.

A Japanese hotel had to lay off half of its robot workers because the robots couldn’t answer questions, work the photocopier, or travel effectively in bad weather. After having to do the robots’ jobs for them for a year, the humans decided that being cute was not a real job qualification.

A feature or a bug?

Sometimes workers have to serve robots for a while. Autonomous robots often need human babysitters till they get all the details worked out. Machine learning requires human mentors to begin with. But the robots don’t always gain the expected skills in the expected time frame. Or they pick up bad habits along the way and create problems.

As time goes on and robots improve, they should be better able to serve humans. After all, their failures were caused by human failures to anticipate the challenges they would encounter.

If your Rexroth electric industrial automation systems are encountering challenges you didn’t anticipate, let us help. We have the largest stock of replacement units in the country, including legacy parts. Call for immediate assistance.


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