Working alongside robots

The discussion concerning the growing number of robots is causing quite a stir. You will have increasingly more contact with robots in your workplace at VDL, or perhaps you already have. What is it like to work with robots, and how safe is it? Aris Verschuren, Senior Project Engineer Controls Robotics at VDL Steelweld, has been working with robots his entire career. We asked him to tell us about his experiences.

How did you grow into this job?

“When I was 14 I joined one of my parents on the cleaning crew at VDL Steelweld in Breda on Saturdays. After I graduated with a degree in power engineering – which is now 36 years ago – I began working as an electrician. At that time there was one colleague who programmed robots, but when it became necessary for him to travel abroad on a regular basis he decided to seek work elsewhere. That's when I came into the picture, and it's what I've been doing ever since. After no more than two hours’ training I was officially the robot programmer. I've become an expert through ‘learning on the job’. The robotics department was then created and began to grow. In the eyday I had about 25 programmers working all over the world. And after all these years I still never know what each day is going to bring; that's what makes my job so enjoyable. For the last 17 years I have been the only person in the company who works with nonautomotive customers. VDL TIM Hapert was our first VDL customer, where we came up with the ‘TIM concept’ together. We have a total of 23 robot cells installed there, and I have trained a number of colleagues at the company as robot operators. In addition to the TIM, I've automated industrial processes and installed robots at various other VDL companies.”

Programming robots, what exactly does that involve? 

“During the programming I stand in the cell – inside the fence – ‘teaching’ the robots, which essentially means programming the order in which the operations/applications must be performed. Thanks to simulation programs, there is increasingly less need for programmers to work on the line, and robots are programmed off-line, from the computer. The new generation of programmers, who have grown up in the digital age, learn programming very quickly, yet it takes many years of experience to become a good robot programmer. There will come a day that we put on virtual reality glasses to program complete robotic lines in a digital factory. This remains still something for the future, but VDL Steelweld is making huge steps towards that.”

What about safety? 

“Robots will always be robots. The biggest pitfall is that you get too comfortable and become careless. Then an accident can happen before you know it. Robots are strong machines and a large robot can easily move 200 kg. Developments such as the ‘safe move’ are making it safer for the operators to work on the line. This means that robots are programmed so the surrounding fences are basically no longer necessary. Despite all the developments, my advice remains: be aware that robots are powerful machines and don't get too comfortable working around them. Safety always comes first.”

Are robots going to take our jobs? 

"Because VDL continuously invests in new technologies, there are always going to be new kinds of work. This investment creates a broad range of job opportunities within the group. What I often see is that employees whose work is robotized remain active around the old workplace. There is often new work to replace the old, which those employees can do instead. As a company we are continuously developing, and through the investments in robotization at VDL Nedcar, for example, the company has now become an even bigger employer. Automation actually creates even more jobs. For example, a robot creates a need for an operator, simulator, engineer, maintenance technician and production staff. Moreover, there are many tasks a robot just can't do. What we will see is even more collaboration between humans and robots.”