This Future of Work at the Human Technology Frontier (FW-HTF) project will advance effective human-robot collaboration (HRC) to reduce electronics remanufacturing costs and improve operator safety, while considering the highly complex unstructured nature of the remanufacturing environment. Scarcity of resources, environmental regulations, and potential profits from salvaging valuable materials and components have motivated consideration of end-of-use product recovery and remanufacturing. However there are significant challenges related to the labor-intensive nature of disassembly, which is an integral part of critical remanufacturing operations such as reuse, repair, maintenance, and recycling. This project focuses on robot-assisted disassembly to increase productivity, while enhancing job satisfaction and ensuring worker safety. Today, disassembly is still a predominantly labor-intensive process that requires direct contact with many elements that are potentially harmful to human health. The research will advance fundamental understanding of the way humans and robots distribute tasks, cooperate, and interact in a safe and complementary manner. Among the expected benefits of the research results are improved quality of life for remanufacturing workers, increased recycling and reduced waste for used electronic materials, the creation of new manufacturing jobs, reduced dependency on foreign sources of strategic materials, and increased stocks of domestically harvested rare earth elements. The multidisciplinary research crosses the boundaries between robotics, sustainable design, human factors, data science, and labor economics, by the joint efforts between the University at Buffalo (UB) and the University of Florida (UF). The research will positively impact engineering education and workforce development through educational and outreach activities such as workshops for K12 students, course development at both institutions, timely training of graduate students, and a set of workshops for industry and academic audiences.
The project is focused on advancing an integrated framework that utilizes the capabilities of both humans and robots in a safe, complementary, and interactive manner, towards designing an economically viable disassembly system for the remanufacturing industry. The research team will perform fundamental studies on collaborative disassembly systems by implementing five interdependent research tasks within the contexts of Future Technology, Future Worker, and Future Work: (1) work environment monitoring with human motion prediction, (2) planning, learning, and control for collaborative robots, (3) disassembly sequence planning under uncertainty and exploring HRC-inspired design guidelines, (4) human-robotics system integration, and (5) modeling and prediction of economic impacts of HRC in remanufacturing environments. Specific knowledge gaps are addressed by mutual interactions among product design guidelines, HRC, occupational safety standards, and remanufacturing labor market. The convergent research approach will allow iteratively adjusted and enhanced collaborative disassembly systems to be implemented in future remanufacturing factories.
This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.