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Your Next Workmate Could Be a Robot

The use of robots across the manufacturing spectrum is growing.
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/ Source: NBC News

A new generation of robots able to work alongside humans on the factory floor is a development that some experts at an industrial fair in Germany have described as "revolutionary."

The big deal about these "collaborative robots" is that they mark a departure from their predecessors which had to sit in cages or be fenced off to protect humans, said Olaf Kramm, the general manager at Fanuc Germany.

Fanuc is a machinery manufacturer showcasing its newest collaborative robot at Hannover Messe – the world's biggest industrial and technology fair.

"Collaboration is already a revolution," Kramm told CNBC late Monday. "The fencing we had around robots was a show-stopper. But that was for safety reasons; now we're talking about industry 4.0 –- a smart factory with no borders, where robots and humans work alongside another."

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He added: "What we're focused on is a workplace where if a human cannot work for a long time we use a robot instead -- for example working on spare parts."

Fanuc on Monday unveiled its collaborative robot, called "CR35-iA," at the Hannover Messe fair. The robot has been in development for roughly two years and is bright green –- a colour picked deliberately to signify collaboration between humans and robots, according to Kramm.

Demonstrating how the robot can be stopped by a light touch of the hand as it loaded a tyre into and out of a car, Kramm said the CR35-iA can take a payload of up to 35 kilograms, allowing it to handle heavy-duty, industrial manufacturing operations.

The future?

The use of robots across the manufacturing spectrum is growing and the International Federation of Robotics estimates that 225,000 industrial robots were sold in 2014, up 27 percent from 2013.

Fanuc is one of a number of companies working on collaborative robots, which analysts expect to become a growing feature of the factories of the future.

ABB, an automation company based in Switzerland, was another firm displaying a collaborative robot at Hannover Messe.

"YuMi -- short for you and me working together -- is a dual-arm, assembly robot that has the ability to see and feel.

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"YuMi really is a revolution in human-machine collaboration," ABB CEO Ulrich Spiesshofer told CNBC. "The robot learns movements in a very fast time, has intuitive programming and is the first robot that is fully connected to our remote service centre in India."

According to ABB, YuMi is built to handle anything from the delicate parts of a wristwatch to the components found in tablets and mobile phones. Its makers say it performs with an accuracy which enables it to thread a needle.

Indeed, YuMi certainly had a flock of visitors at Hannover Messe, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi stopping by during their tour of the fair to see the robot in action.