Operators adjust to ‘cobots,’ new robot co-workers

Ottawa County

HOLLAND, Mich. (WOOD) — Imagine having a robot as a coworker. It’s a trend growing increasingly popular in the workplace, including KAM Plastics Corp. in Holland. 

Operator Mary Gonzales first met her new coworker, Joey, last summer.  

“I called him the thing, but then one day they’re like, ‘His name is Joey,’ and I was like, ‘What?’” 

Joey is more formally known as the UR5, a new generation robot that’s designed to work side by side with people. 

Robots like Joey are often called cobots, which is short for collaborative robots. 

At the KAM Plastics’ plant in Holland, Joey works between two human operators in assembling an automotive part.   

His arrival took some employees by surprise.  

“When Joey came, I got a little freaked out because he was standing here all wrapped up and I was like, ‘Oh shoot, where’s he going?’” Gonzales said.  

Juanita Kelley, another operator working alongside Joey, said she too had her reservations.  

“I wasn’t sure about him at first just because we were doing that job and then when he took over and bumped us out of the way,” Kelley said. 

Chad Wiersma, KAM Plastics’ director of operations, said while a lot of employees weren’t keen on the idea of robots replacing people, their situation is different.  

“There is a little bit of fear that my job may go away, but they haven’t seen that,” Wiersma said. “We did replace a person here (with Joey), but they were able to go to a different job where they could use their skills more effectively.” 

To better utilize the skillset of their human workforce, cobots are tasked with more menial and redundant jobs, where the less human error, the better.  

Gonzales’ biggest concern was that Joey would be the start of a robot takeover, like you see in the movies.  

“Like ‘The Terminator’ and ‘Power Rangers’ and all that,” she said. “So then I did get scared because that was the first time I ever worked with something like that.” 

It took some getting used to, but Gonzales overcame that fear after seeing Joey in action, especially because the cobot is designed to automatically shut off if it comes in contact with a person.  

Among the perks Joey brings to the team are increased productivity and profitability.  

“He never gets tried, never needs to take a break, never has to take a lunch,” engineering manager Kevin Beckman said.  

Operator Juanita Kelley said Joey helps set the pace for the whole production line.  

“Joey is just strictly work,” she said. “He strictly does what he has to do.” 

Since KAM Plastics is an employee-owned company, the entire workforce seems to appreciate Joey’s ability to boost productivity.  

“We’re saving money so that money will go into our pockets,” Gonzales said. “And he doesn’t talk back to me like them people do.” 

Now that Gonzales has grown used to working with Joey, she finds herself doing most the talking, while Joey does all the listening. 

“If he stops, I’m like, ‘Well, what now, Joey?’” she said. “But I’m not scared of him no more, because he’s bolted down and can’t run after me.” 

Cobots like Joey can be found in a variety of work environments, from operating the assembly line at KAM Plastics to flipping burgers at some fast food restaurants in California. 

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