Detroit-based Sundberg-Ferar is an industrial design, research, engineering, innovation strategy and prototyping firm. They undertook the following thought exercise: How could robots—sorry, "cobots"—make a positive impact on the food industry?
So far, the emerging role of cobots (collaborative robots) in the food industry is only as broad as jobs which are dirty, dull, or dangerous. In this ideation activity Sundberg-Ferar explored ways to maximize the collaborative potential of cobots in food workplaces by envisioning solutions that don't merely diminish human risk, but enable humans to reach new heights of aspirational fulfillment by focusing on the parts of their work that are most meaningful and "human".
In this ideation exercise, we pursued 6 lines of thinking at a high-level on the topic of cobots in the food industry. This brief exploration resulted in the creation of imagery to visualize ideals for the future of cobot design and use-cases.
Where is that sweet spot where humans and robots meet their respective limitations and cross over to relying on each other as their individual strengths and weaknesses become complimentary?
What more might we do to create a cobot experience for human workers that they enjoy, and benefit from, and that results in more than the sum of its parts?
2. Cobots and the nature of collaboration
In the near-term, how might we find a more intuitive process for humans and robots to communicate with each other through non-verbals and body language; both necessary cues to be able to move harmoniously at speed?
In the future, how might we create true collaboration which transforms a cobot from a job-taker and a headache to an esteemed co-worker who augments and empowers the creative work of the team?
3. Cobots & cooking-as-theater
How might we create cobot capabilities that lend themselves not only to back-of-the-house logistics but also to front-of-the-house assistance, convenience, and entertainment?
Could the novelty of cobots combined with the art of live cooking be leveraged to create new opportunities for business growth?
4. Cobots and trust
How can we develop cobot architectures for food service or restaurants that demystify the role and function of the cobot to create trust?
5. Cobots & opportunities for human empowerment
How might we use cobots to execute tasks like hearing, translating, seeing, lifting etc?
How might we use cobots to enable people who are passionate about food to pursue their passion regardless of physical limitations?
6. Culinary virtuosity and cobots
How might we create cobots that don't merely execute a task, but execute it with their own flair created by their unique capabilities?
How might we create robots that can assist with culinary arts at a highly skilled level, complementing the unique style of an individual chef of cook, and helping artists realize their vision?
Mitigating these issues is a good start, but merely creating a cobot that avoids human injury or impediment is a far cry from a cobot that helps, can anticipate, and empowers their human co-workers.
Academic research and industry players assert that the outcomes of cobot and human relationships are dependent on the limits of understanding between humans and robots. Today these relationships are often characterized by stress, distrust, and miscommunication, the opposite of what is needed for collaboration. One source of this distrust and fear is the sense that human workers are being made redundant. Another is the learning curve required of human workers to train the robot, explain in its language what to do, and find a new way of working that accommodates the robot. This ideation exercise is meant to provoke thought and action around the idea of putting increasing emphasis on cobots understanding and aligning to humans, rather than asking humans to cross the gap of understanding.
The best food cobot companies are succeeding in one or more of the areas we've talked about above. To dominate the industry, designers and users of collaborative robots must achieve solutions that create a desired and beneficial experience for human workers. Failure in this will only result in a frustrated and unproductive workforce. Success will mean greater heights of human innovation, creativity, productivity, and business growth than we've ever seen before.
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