Cobot-Human cooperation reduces mental workload: Advantage of human robot interaction in industry

Have you ever imagined working side by side with a robot? Not in a distant, sci-fi future, but right here and right now? Well, that future is closer than you think, and it’s not only fascinating but also full of potential benefits!

Cobot human collaboration in industry 5.0

This neuroergonomics study reveals how collaborative robots (Cobots) can revolutionize the way we work. They are foreseen as a vital part of Industry 5.0 revolution.

Development of human-centric work environment

The fifth industrial revolution (IR5.0) brings a human-centric approach to manufacturing.

It values personalization and customer-specific needs. Unlike past revolutions focused on minimizing human involvement, IR5.0 integrates technology to enhance individual benefits.

IR5.0 foresees a collaborative space where robots work alongside humans. The Cobots are proposed for boosting wellbeing and job satisfaction. This shift underscores occupational health and safety as foundational to organizational success in smart factories.

The Problem-Solving Duo: Humans and Cobots

The driving question was profound yet practical. How does the introduction of Cobots into the workflow affect the mental workload of human operators? This query is essential, as the rise of cobots in fenceless environments challenges us to reimagine the ergonomics of human-machine interaction.

Neuroergonomics Experiment setup: Where Human Meets Robot

The lab set-up was like a mini-factory, where people were given tasks to complete. The task was to assembly the prototype model of an industrial product.

The participants need to perform wire-harnessing task on the connection plate, i.e. to connect the wires on the board according to the predefined scheme (See the right panel in Figure 1 below). For safety purposes, the participants performed the wire-harnessing task on plastic replica (left panel in Figure 1).

Neuroergonomics setup for wire-harnessing
Figure 1: Left image represents the industry replicated parts that were made solely in plastic. The real industry prototype parts are presented on the right hand side

To estimate how the introduction of Cobots influences mental workload of the worker, the participants were immersed in two distinct scenarios while their EEG was recorded using portable EEG system SMARTING.

Initially, they performed manual assembly tasks in solitude, without the help of Cobot (Figure 2 – left image).

Subsequently, they entered a collaborative work with a Cobot, working in tandem to complete the same tasks (Figure 2 – right image).

Wire-harnessing task, step-by-step

The wire-harnessing task performed by the participants consisted of the following steps:

  1. Participant had to take the plate located on the right side and set it on the work desk of the workstation.
    1.  In the standard scenario, the plates are set in lots, and placed on the right side of the operator in the manual assembly desk area (left image below).
    2.  In the collaborative work scenario, the Cobot carried the plate to the operator on the right side, entering the manual assembly area and waiting for the participant to finish the task (right image below).
  2. The cobot positioned the plate to be taken by the participant. In this phase, ergonomic principles were considered to let the participant grasp the component without overextending the arm;
  3. Take seven wires from the container, one by one, set in the assembly area
  4. Perform wire-harnessing task.
Human Cobot cooperation, Collaborative robot human operator collaboration while recorded with Smarting wireless EEG
Figure 2. Task condition recorded with Smarting wireless EEG in which participants performed wire-harnessing task (left image) and the condition where participants performed the task with the help of Cobot (right image)

Data Acquisition

The researchers collected as many data as they could to investigate the influence of human-robot interaction on mental workload. For that purpose they utilized:

  • The NASA-TLX Survey: A subjective yet insightful questionnaire measuring perceived workload.
  • Portable EEG: An objective measure, capturing the electrical signals of the brain’s activity, offering a window into the operator’s mental workload.
  • Observational Checklists: A methodical assessment of task performance, harmonizing the subjective and objective to paint a complete picture.

The Results revealed Enhanced Productivity and Reduced Mental Workload when working with Cobots

The study represented results on the individual basis, rather than the group analysis.

In the balanced collaboration with Cobots, participants exhibited lower mental workload indices. The mental workload index used in the study was the ratio (beta/alpha) ratio, as extracted from the EEG data.

This finding suggests that Cobots may shoulder a part of the cognitive burden, granting humans the cognitive bandwidth to operate more effectively.

NASA-TLX questionnaire results also confirmed that the task was mentally less demanding when the participants were supported by the Cobots.

Finally, the observational data underscored an uptick in productivity during collaborative working (Figure 3). Researchers reported that efficiency increased, tasks were completed more swiftly, and it seems, with greater satisfaction.

Cobots increase efficiency in manual assembly tasks
Figure 3. Results from observational measurements. The blue line represents the scenario where participants were performing wire-harnessing task alone. The orange bars represent the results in collaborative condition

The Future: Guided Toward Even Greater Ease

The journey doesn’t end here. The next step on this exciting path involves introducing guided systems – a sort of high-tech assistance program to make cobot collaboration even smoother.

The anticipation is evident. The researchers are on the edge of their seats expecting to see an even greater decrease in mental workload and a leap in performance.

In Simple Terms: Cobots Are Good News

In an era where ‘work-life balance’ is a hashtag and a lifestyle, these findings aren’t numbers on a page. They’re a sneak peek into a future where robots could be the best colleagues we’ve ever had.

They could help us work not just more efficiently, but also with a lighter mental load. In a nutshell, Cobots are more than just a technological marvel – they’re a helping hand that’s good for the mind.

They’re leading the way to a future where work doesn’t just get done faster, but also feels easier, making the human-robot team a match made in workplace heaven.

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