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Intelligent Assist Devices Coming of Age

POSTED 08/17/2000  | By: Hallie Forcinio, Contributing Editor, Managing Automation Magazine

What's an IAD? It stands for intelligent assist device, but a definition is somewhat of a challenge. Part of the difficulty is IADs, which typically aid workers lifting and positioning heavy, awkward objects, come in more varieties than squash.

What everyone does agree on is the units, which enhance worker productivity and reduce potentially injurious lifting and repetitive motion, will quickly populate the factory floor.

Attempting to establish a definition for these next generation ergonomic assist devices (EADs) is the T-15 Committee of Safety Standards for Intelligent Assist Devices organized by the Robotic Industries Association, Ann Arbor, MI, and chaired by Tom Pearson of Ford Motor Co., Dearborn, MI. Committee members include builders of IADs, end users like Ford and General Motors Corp., Detroit, researchers in the academic world, government entities and the United Autoworkers union.

One of the first tasks of the Committee, which has been meeting bimonthly, has been to craft a definition. The consensus it has come to is that an IAD is "a single or multiple axis device that employs a hybrid programmable computer-human control system to provide human strength amplification, guiding surfaces or both."

This means the unit is not just an operator strength booster, but that it also knows its location in space and can establish virtual walls to limit its movement. Basically, "the computer revolution has come to ergonomic assist devices," says Michael Peshkin, technical advisor and cofounder of CoMoCo. Inc., Evanston, IL, a builder of IADs.

Because these multifunctional assist devices can help perform material handling, process and assembly tasks that normally involve a human operator in its workspace, the committee's primary task is ensuring operator safety.

"...these devices can correct health and safety problems and prevent injuries and illness and at the same time create new hazards if not properly designed and implemented," says Jim Howe, assistant director UAW Health and Safety Department, Detroit.

So another Committee goal is to craft a standard outlining safety considerations in the design, construction, installation and operation of IADs. The standard will include protocols, job procedures, safeguards and training requirements for installation and use of IADs in production operations. "Any time a worker interacts with a machine there is potential for injury," says Peshkin. It's essential to know how fast the units move and with what force and to ensure communication is clear between operator and machine so the operator knows when and how the machine will move.

"What the Committee is trying to do is anticipate all of the hazards and address them, which is somewhat difficult because no one knows all of the types of applications that IADs will be applied to," says Howe.

However, "Before the product is fielded is the proper time to develop a standard," says Jeff Fryman, manager of standards development at RIA.

"It's hard to have impact after a large number of products have been deployed," notes Howe. Reaching an agreement on an IAD standard prior to any significant deployment hopefully will prevent any serious injuries or problems associated with use of these new devices. "The goal is smooth implementation," he adds.

How IADs work
"Essentially we use a force sensing technology that monitors the operator's force input on a set of handlebars," explains Don Kijek, product manager at Fanuc Robotics, Rochester Hills, MI, which has a not yet named IAD product under development. Motion is translated through the controller so the unit moves wherever the operator pushes the handlebars. Encoders on the machine axes provide position location while software creates virtual walls which channel movement and limits where the machine can go. This can prevent damage caused by banging a part or tool into an assembly.

CoMoCo's flagship IAD is called a cobot (collaborative robot). It serves as an ergonomic assistant, reducing the force required to lift and move objects and improving positioning accuracy.

Other IADs from CoMoCo include iLift, an intelligent lifting unit, and "smart" trolleys for powered rail systems.

Probably the farthest along in the commercialization process is a Z-axis lifting device from Gorbel Inc., Fischers, NY, which is in place in a handful of installations. The G-Force ILD (intelligent lift device) is basically a hoist where computer-controlled servo motion performs the lifting and lowering action. It's rated at loads of 150 pounds or less, a capacity in growing demand to reduce operator fatigue and back injuries related to lifting.

IAD applications
Fanuc's first installations will begin trials at Ford around the first of the year. One unit will install truck instrument panels on a moving assembly line. The second will load cylinder heads on top of engine blocks. Since the unit's control software creates virtual walls, instrument panels can be lifted and set in place without touching the body of the truck and damaging paint, which would then require a touchup.

CoMoCo has a prototype cobot helping with seat installation on GM trucks. The iLift device also is being tested by GM.

Although the automotive industry has been the driving force in IAD product development and several demonstrations are slated for automotive plants, other assembly operations, warehousing and parcel handling also are target markets.

Hurdles to implementation
While a number of companies are working on commercial units, widespread adoption will depend on overcoming several hurdles. One will be developing force sensors robust enough for industrial applications.

Another hurdle is lack of standardization. "Right now end effectors are engineered per application," says Taylor. This means a lot of price-boosting custom engineering.

As with any new tool, another hurdle is capital investment. However, this should be overcome by the return on investment posed by the potential IADs offer for improving productivity, reducing repetitive injury scenarios and boosting worker morale.

While IADs are likely to carry a premium over the much simpler traditional EADs like pneumatic or electric manipulators, exactly how much remains to be seen. Of course, as with most new technology, prices probably will decline as the installed base of units grows.

The final hurdle and probably the easiest to overcome is a widespread lack of awareness of the existence of such devices. "The technology works," says Taylor. "It's just a matter of getting people exposed to it," he adds.

Once they see them and try them out, "Operators just love these things," reports Peshkin. "It improves quality of life," concludes Fryman.