As automation and industry 4.0 have made great strides in recent years, robots have become an integral part of many industrial environments. This creates great opportunities, yet it may also cause concern and anxiety. Workers may, for example, worry about being replaced by machines, or have more general feelings of uncertainty about how they should interact with their new and advanced mechanical “colleagues” and how they will change their day-to-day tasks.

This meeting point between robots and humans is the subject of research in the field of Human-Robot-Interaction (HRI), which looks into questions such as what causes fear or insecurity towards robots, what can be done to combat those feelings, and how robots can be integrated into human working environments as smoothly as possible. This article aims to give you useful background information as well as some practical tips all around this topic.

Human-Robot-Interaction: When a machine becomes a coworker

Currently, most industrial robots are deployed separately from human workers due to safety concerns. As technology progresses, however, more and more organizations acquire collaborative robots that can actually work side by side with humans, one such example being the mobile robots developed by ASTI Mobile Robotics. This poses a technological challenge in terms of safety and operator friendliness – our solutions on this include safety laser scanners, which can detect movement in potentially dangerous areas, safety PLC, warning systems as well as further safety- and communication features.

However, an automation project can also include social challenges. Unlike isolated, stationary robots, mobile robots such as ASTI’s can interact directly with their human colleagues. If they are to be deployed effectively, one needs to be aware of the need for communication with staff and the importance of exchanging information in open discussions.

Robot anxiety: How to combat fear and worry about robots

To communicate effectively with staff during the integration process of new robotics technology, it is helpful to be aware of common concerns about robotics as well as where these concerns can come from.

Many are aware of the common fear some may have of being replaced by robots, and job security is an important aspect that needs to be discussed – but even if this has been covered, many people may still feel a sense of uncertainty about the changes to come. This feeling of insecurity is called “robot anxiety” in the field of HRI and can often be caused by a lack of experience with robots. Oftentimes, people have never interacted with robots before and thus may not know what to expect.

This, combined with the knowledge that robots often possess a lot of strength and are made from highly innovative, modern technology, can understandably lead to some apprehension towards them – however, this apprehension may be problematic for effective integration. So, what can you do?

Practical robot integration

One of the most important factors in the robot integration process is, as mentioned, a clear communication strategy. Experts such as Dr. Oehme at HFC Human-Factors-Consult GmbH, a specialist in areas such as change management and the interaction of humans and technology, explains that, in order to successfully integrate new technology, it is critical to understand “biases against automation technology, hitherto undiscovered informal structures and processes and motivational factors (…). An efficient and effective change process needs to include staff, teams and organizational structures.”

Entrepreneurs should especially make sure to:

  • Describe the new robotic systems’ capabilities realistically, transparently and early on,
  • Inform about the coming introduction of new technology and related new working processes and their goals,
  • Take all concerns seriously and integrate constructive criticisms.

Dr. Oehme furthermore recommends that entrepreneurs take time to prepare the changes that robots will bring with them and plan for the strategies mentioned above in order to encourage communication and an open mind towards this new technology. It is also important not to underestimate staff’s expertise in their current work environment, which can allow them to give management and technicians important advice for the robots’ installation. Dr. Oehme concludes that: “The introduction of a robotic system needs to be accompanied by a change management process that puts people first, not just because of the associated high investments, but also to foster a well-functioning working environment.”

In summary: It is understandable that the introduction of robots in a new environment can be a cause of uncertainty. Robot integration strategies should therefore consider not only technical expertise, but also communication about issues such as job security and the role robots will play in staff’s day-to-day work, as well as about the changes they will introduce. It is advisable to take time to plan ahead for technical installation as well as change management processes that work for and with affected staff.