In the Industry 4.0 context, collaborative robots are the subject of exponential interest. They are usually integrated and supplied with the necessary software to help the operators in their daily tasks. On this programming side, engineers and skilled workers are usually the ones who have a hand in programming the robot.
On their side, the operator-users usually have at their disposal a fenced robot with an interface where only a few variables related to the activity can be adjusted. In other words, operators can easily be passive about their activity and consider themselves as simple “push-buttons” at the service of the system and the general business. This passivity is generally concomitant with a loss of meaning related to work and a feeling of self-depreciation.
How to make a collaborative robot accessible and acceptable in an industrial environment to transform it into a must-have companion for an operator?
User-centered design: The key to a successful trustworthy work environment
The collaborative robot must be adapted to the real operators work and needs. It is therefore necessary to create an environment conducive to collaboration with operators, to understand their work, their expectations and their fears in order to co-design their future work tool.
In a previous blog post, we talked about how psychology & cognitive science could inform and benefit from an industrial research project aimed at developing human-centered cobotic solutions.
User-Centered Design (UCD) is first and foremost a collective project operating method where all stakeholders, from operators to top management, are involved in identifying the problems to be solved and the associated solutions. There are several ways to effectively involve all stakeholders in UCD.
By objectively questioning the operator on his needs, problems and doubts, we can verbalise the first working tracks for the project. This also allows a strong and better integration of the operator for solutions research.
Beyond questioning, putting ourselves in the position of an operator adds a close-to-reality dimension to the needs expressed in the interviews. This allows technical partners (e.g Technical coaches) to understand where the constraints are, even if they are not expressed by the operators and how the collaborative robot can correct them. Moreover, the immersion allows a third person to identify any issues that the operator would not have identified because of its experience and adaptability to his working environment.
After needs have been clarified and the constraints imposed, it is now necessary to bring all the stakeholders around the table to define the most viable solutions regarding the objectives set by the project. The interest of collective workshops is to mobilise a large number of people over a given time to extract from this collaboration as many elements as possible to build the most optimal solution for the defined needs.
The key to the success of this approach is facilitation because the people in the working groups are not usually working together. This is why efficient facilitation is necessary to feed the project: creating a trustful environment, breaking the ice between people, creating a playful mindset and making everything visible (through graphic facilitation for example) will help ideas circulate in the group.
Once all stakeholders have converged towards a common goal, it is necessary to test solutions on the field. Although the technical performance, the system may not be appropriate in a given context: lack of space, ambient noise, insufficient brightness, too much concentration required in relation to the activity… can have a bad influence on operators’ performance and usabiliy of the system.
Thanks to the experimentation, operators can express their feelings about the system without any risk and thus enrich the design of their returns. This allows not only to fine-tune the final characteristics of the system, but also to ensure that the human factor (operators) is taken into account in its design.
The more the group gets involved and feels concerned, the better and more efficient the solutions that will be generated.
Of course, there are many other methods to involve end-users into the project:
In Sharework, we will use a Wizard-Of-Oz. This method is a process that allows a user to interact with a device without knowing that the response from it is being generated by someone else behind-the-scenes rather than the system itself.
For Sharework purpose, we will simulate a fake-working collaborative robot which will be remotely controlled by someone else in order to test the operator’s reactions. This method is helpful to analyse end-users’ behaviour without setting up a complex system or putting operators in any risks. We simply need to create a scenario, a trigger for each event and follow up the user during its journey with the robot.
Video 1: Illustration of a Wizard-Of-Oz session to evaluate an innovative way to control a screen by gesture. Behind the scence, there’s someone who manually controls the display
The Norman Niesel Group, a pioneer in the User-centered design approach, gathered into this article a sample of frequently used User Research methodsfor tracking end-users insights.
Benefits for all, from operators to top-management
Involving employees in every phase of the project significantly improves technological acceptability and reduces the risks related to the human factor:
- Misuse of technology
- Misunderstanding of its objectives
- Misinterpretation of its intentions
Within the Sharework project, we use the UCD to facilitate the appropriation by the operators involved in the project as we implement innovative design to create a modular software for industrial collaborative robots, while guaranteeing them a valorisation of their work and an improvement of their working conditions.
Eventually, collaborative robots and humans will cohabit within the same workspaces. It is therefore important that, beyond the question of technical performance, operators place as much confidence in the machine as in their own tools.
The robot will be the screwdriver of tomorrow, and as such, it must remain easy to use and reliable, just like any other tool.
Hugues Randriatsoa is Innovation Manager at Strane Innovation. Graduated from Mines-Paris Business School, Hugues has a background that has enabled him to support many innovative technological projects. Convinced that the human factor is an essential component of a successful innovation, Hugues brings his experience to Sharework to effectively involve end users in the project.