Cobots at the Forefront of the Factory of the Future
Increasingly present in Safran production sites, cobots are at the center of projects related to the factory of the future. This area of expertise, which involves designing collaborative robots, meets the needs of health and performance requirements. We caught up with Jean-François Thibault, Head of the Group's "Ergonomics" program, to find out more.
What does the cobotics research project that you are coordinating actually involve?
Cobots are becoming more prevalent in the Group. To design "cobotic systems" using collaborative robots that are adapted to production lines and useful to operators, we set up a dedicated research program back in 2014. It provides a means of choosing the best solutions in terms of our future production systems, people-related factors and advances in technology. As such, Safran is helping to PhD students in order to draw up a methodology for introducing cobotic system , and is part of the Factory Lab, a platform which dreams up and tests new tools in collaboration with the CEA and other industrial partners.
What shape is cobotics taking at Safran?
There are three types of cobots: there are those controlled by an operator located within the immediate vicinity of the system (co-manipulation), others are controlled remotely (teleoperation) and there are also exoskeletons (electromechanical system which provide active assistance to employees). Some of them are already operational, and others are under development in the Group. The principle is to combine the capabilities of a robot with the skills of a human. At no point will machines replace people, they will simply assist them with their work. It is a real partnership. At Safran Nacelles, for example, the cobots being used in Le Havre, on the moving line for the A320neo, and in Colomiers, for the production of Silvercrest engine nacelles provide a means of moving cumbersome equipment while facilitating operators' work.
What is the reason for the growing interest in cobotics?
First and foremost, a cobotic system must be easy to use and offer real benefits to employees. Experience shows that cobots improve ergonomics in the workplace and, therefore, they help to mitigate arduousness and occupational accidents. Since the implementation of the "Safran Ergonomics" program, musculoskeletal disorders have fallen by 43% in the Group's industrial sites in France, and accidents resulting in lost time have been halved in all sites worldwide. Cobots have other benefits too: they make it possible to employ people with special needs (disabilities, aging, etc.) on workstations which would have previously been unfeasible. Lastly, by relieving operators of low added-value tasks, collaborative "man-machine" workstations foster performance.
What is the outlook in terms of developments?
Cobotics is still in its infancy which means there are several challenges which have yet to be overcome. We are going to need to focus on rethinking the organization of work and adapting employee training in particular in order to maintain the cobots. However, cobotics is a promising new discipline insofar as it provides flexibility at a low cost compared to "conventional" robotics. As a result, Safran is in the process of incorporating cobots into its factory of the future projects.
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