Even without the current COVID-19 global pandemic, the global healthcare system is under tremendous strain. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a remarkable report on April 6. WHO has warned that the world needs at least 5.9 million additional nurses to meet global health targets. This is a staggering shortfall, indeed. Technology, however, may be coming to the rescue with the deployment of collaborative robots, or cobots, in the healthcare industry.
Unlike their heavy and large industrial robot cousins, cobots are nimbler and more user-friendly. As their name suggests, they are designed to work together with humans, rather than replacing them.
Cobots and healthcare
“Universal Robots is focused on how we can reduce the pain and suffering that has become part of our world since the evolution of COVID-19. Hence we would prefer never to sell a robot due to the pandemic. However, we are working hard on how we can support anyone in this field to fight back against this virus. We have in the past and will continue to see cobots used in healthcare, used to help people live longer and stronger lives — that will always be a focus,” Darrell Adams, Head, Southeast Asia & Oceania of Universal Robots (UR), told Digital Life Asia.
Founded in 2005 by three university students in Denmark, UR was the first company to deliver commercially viable cobots. Its mission is to make the world a better place, one cobot at a time.
Most people still think of industrial factories when it comes to robots. The evolution of robotics, however, has seen them assisting humans in more industries. For instance, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the healthcare industry was already deploying UR cobots to help with various tasks.
Robots can undertake simple tasks like drawing blood, checking patients’ vital signs and conditions, and taking care of the patients’ hygiene if needed. Robots can also prepare and dispense medications in pharmacological labs. They can even help paraplegics move and administer physical therapy, reducing the workload and physical strain on therapists.
In Denmark, the Copenhagen University Hospital Gentofte has engaged the help of two Universal Robot UR5 cobots to optimize the handling and sorting of blood samples for analysis. The cobots enable the lab to uphold a target of delivering more than 90 percent of results within one hour despite a 20-percent increase in samples arriving for analysis.
Collaborating with humans
As someone who loves robots, I’ve always believed they can help us. Many people, however, still have a lingering fear that robots will one day replace them. How does UR address this?
“This is a common fear and UR hopes that we are driving the change in understanding here. One of the major benefits of UR is that our cobots are designed to work with humans. This allows us to utilize the benefits of both robots and humans combined. Humans are amazing in cognitive and visual tasks, something that robots are inherently poor at achieving. Having humans up and downstream from the robot allows for an overall efficacy benefit, above what is available from the robot or human alone.
“With this in mind, cobots will be continuing to help humans rather than replace them as it’s better for business and the people in them,” he said.
Automation should be accessible
Of course, apart from training the robots, humans also need to adapt to the evolving work environment. This involves not only learning new skills, but also adopting a different mindset.
What does Adams see as the ideal relationship between human employees and their robot counterparts?
“UR has been helping people better understand how to use cobots to benefit us all. We focus on training to help upskill anyone that wants to learn more about cobots, and automation in general, and in many cases we offer this free of charge. But of key importance here is that UR has committed to a product and ecosystem that does not require an engineering degree or formal training in programming. UR is dedicated to making automation accessible to all.
“In terms of mindset, I believe that we are all becoming more exposed to robotics of many types in our day to day, so there is some natural progression here. It is my generation that will struggle the most, as we did not grow up with robot toys, robots in the classroom, and robots in our house. Simply having an open mind to robotics is the key. Don’t rule it out in your business as you may be protecting your staff from dirty, dull, or dangerous work — which I think we can all agree, is in the best interest of all,” Adams said.
In a fascinating article for Wired, Joi Ito shared his thoughts on why Westerners fear robots while the Japanese love them.
I asked Adams if he also sees Asia as being more accepting of robots.
“Certainly on a per capita robot installation this would appear to be the case. However, I think that it is more market forces that have driven this. Developed countries typically do less mass scale manufacturing than what we see in the developing world. Additionally the expectation of the population, in terms of how they make their livelihood, is also very different.
“Japan is a notable standout here, as it is a developed country with mass robot installations and is Asian. I believe that this is likely due to Japan being one of the first manufacturing centers in Asia. But ‘Made in Japan’ is also becoming less prevalent than other regions in Asia when looking at manufactured products. Which is how the cycle appears to move throughout the world,” he said.
Will cobots become more mainstream in the post-pandemic world?
“The mainstream acceptance of cobots is well underway! With 44,000 cobots installed globally, UR is involved with most markets and applications. I would say that due to UR’s focus on training and education, many of the people that are looking at cobot automation are aware of us. Cobots are already part of the fabric of automation, it is just a matter of time until we see one, or more, cobots in every factory,” Adams said.
Who knows? With humans and robots working together, maybe we can build a better world.