Written by Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Dr Stine S Johansen and PhD Researcher, James Dwyer
In this short article, we will share 6 benefits of having a prototyping toolkit for designing human-robot collaboration (HRC). We will lift the curtain on our planned activities to work towards this in Program 2 of the Australian Cobotics Centre.
What type of human-robot collaboration are we talking about?
The Australian Cobotics Centre focuses on cobots in manufacturing settings. In these settings, robots are most often big and locked away in cages for safety reasons. They are useful for highly defined and repeatable tasks that require strength. In contrast, cobots are typically smaller and allow for people to safely carry out a task by handing over items to the robot or even by physically handling the robot.
Cobots address an increasing need for more adaptable robotic systems for customised and bespoke products. These types of products still require people in the manufacturing line to accommodate changes from product to product.
So, what could a prototyping toolkit look like?
Imagine a toolbox with screwdrivers, a hammer, cutters, etc. Similar to that, we already have tools in our design toolbox that work at a generic level or are appropriated to suit particular problems. But a toolkit for prototyping human-robot collaboration is still left for us to investigate. In Program 2, James Dwyer (PhD student) will contribute to our knowledge about how different prototyping tools can facilitate design processes of HRC. The goal is to develop a practical and affordable toolkit that can be used to enable designers, engineers, and end-users to work together towards human-robot collaboration in manufacturing settings and beyond.
What are the benefits of having a prototyping toolkit?
Knowing how a cobot can fit into an existing or new manufacturing setting requires substantial research. What if we had a way to make that process easier and more efficient for designers and clients as well as more accommodating for the final end-users of the cobot? This is the broad aim of a HRC prototyping toolkit. Here are 6 concrete benefits that we aim to support through our work in Program 2.
1) Accessible end-user engagement
Manufacturers often lack the expertise to define how a cobot could be used. They are, however, experts in their respective domain. Domain knowledge is not always something that can be documented in written reports. It is also the tacit knowledge that workers build through years of experience. A prototyping toolkit can enable that knowledge to play a role very early in the design and development process by lowering the currently high technical barriers to understand how a robot works. In Program 2, we rely on principles from participatory design which is a design practice to produce tangible outcomes together with end-users.
2) Cost and time efficiency
Facilitating a cobot integration project can require substantial costs and time which makes it non-viable for some manufacturers. The hardware investments require committing to a particular setup, but there are risks associated with such investments if feasibility of the concept has not been investigated early on. Therefore, it will be beneficial to have prototyping tools to conduct such investigations without the necessity of actual hardware. Prototyping tools can furthermore allow for quick and cheap iterations. Subsequently, there is a need for tools that facilitate the transition from early concepts to implementation and testing.
Given the opportunity for cobots to assist in manufacturing of customised products, there is a high need for flexible solutions. Crucial to realising flexibility is the establishment of design processes that bridge the gap between early stage conceptual development and technical integration. For cobots to effectively contribute to customised production, they must follow a rich understanding of work practices, production methods, and customisation requirements entailed in the manufacturing. This understanding can be developed through iterative design and a holistic approach, covering all aspects from conceptualisation, prototyping, and implementation. This will ensure that the cobots are versatile, adaptable, and able to meet changing production needs.
4) Risk mitigation
Even though cobots are generally equipped with safety measures such as a safe stop button and sensors to detect and stop collisions with people, it is still possible to get hurt by a faulty cobot that has not been adapted to its environment. Prototyping tools allow us to mitigate this risk in two ways. First, it is possible to create virtual models of the environment and cobot, meaning that we can simulate tasks and clarify potential safety risks we might not otherwise have detected purely from prior experience and safety standards. This allows us to develop safety measures long before anyone gets hurt. Second, while engaging end-users in the design process has many benefits, people with non-technical backgrounds are not necessarily comfortable interacting with a robot – especially an unfinished robot solution. Therefore, prototyping tools can support our engagement with end-users by removing the potential fear of getting hurt.
5) Enhanced creativity
As design researchers, we often engage in generative ideation activities to address research questions. Prototypes enable us to see facets of an idea that were not previously obvious. This is sometimes referred to as ‘filtering’ (for further reading on this topic, see our list of references). It’s like putting on special glasses that highlight the specific qualities we want to explore further while still capturing the essence of the entire concept. In order to use prototypes as filters, it is necessary to have a holistic understanding of the context within which the cobot will operate and how that context can change with the introduction of the cobot. A prototyping toolkit can help give us different lenses to explore facets of the context in early prototypes, thereby becoming a creative extension for designers. This could include prototyping tools such as facilitating Wizard-of-Oz methods, video prototyping, or virtual simulations.
6) Facilitating internal communication
Prototyping is an activity that allows us to both internalise and externalise ideas. In other words, prototypes enable us to internally reflect on what works and what does not work as well as communicate ideas to team members, clients, or anyone interacting with them. Prototypes have always had that role in design research, but with the technical barriers to quick prototyping for human-robot collaboration, there is a need to identify new ways to facilitate this role of prototypes.
We look forward to sharing our progress throughout the next few years. Please reach to us for further discussion, questions, or other inquiries.
Lim, Y. K., Stolterman, E., & Tenenberg, J. (2008). The anatomy of prototypes: Prototypes as filters, prototypes as manifestations of design ideas. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI), 15(2), 1-27.
Wensveen, S., & Matthews, B. (2014). Prototypes and prototyping in design research. In The routledge companion to design research (pp. 262-276). Routledge.
William Odom, Ron Wakkary, Youn-kyung Lim, Audrey Desjardins, Bart Hengeveld, and Richard Banks. 2016. From Research Prototype to Research Product. In Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’16). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 2549–2561. https://doi.org/10.1145/2858036.2858447
Gopika Ajaykumar. 2023. Supporting End-Users in Programming Collaborative Robots. In Companion of the 2023 ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction (HRI ’23). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 736–738. https://doi.org/10.1145/3568294.3579969