Any number of lively arguments have been advanced, pro and con, over the use of robots in the workplace – philosophical, economic, ethical.

But nothing argues in favor of robots like the sheer agony of the bad back.

Enter ELM Electrical’s Collaborative Robotic Palletizer.

“Collaborative” – working safely with human beings.

“Palletizer” – a robot that places or stacks boxes of product on a pallet.

The idea behind the palletizer is — let the robot do the heavy lifting, and save the human would-be lifter for lighter tasks and heavy thinking. The robot has no muscles to strain, no ligaments to inflame, no joints to sprain or crack. It doesn’t feel pain, it doesn’t get exhausted. It doesn’t know the pain and immobility all too familiar to those who have a bad back, one of the most chronic injuries in the U.S., and recognized by medicine as the single leading cause of disability worldwide.

Installing a collaborative robot for a company begins with a meticulous study of the work area — the space available, the building features, the floor traffic patterns, etc.

“We go in and look at what the customer’s needs are,” said Senior Vice President Mike Holmberg, “and develop a custom solution to solve their problem. So, we can provide a solution for a wide array of a slow-moving kind of product, and with a collaborative robotic solution that doesn’t impact a lot of floor space for the customer and doesn’t impact a lot of operational change for the customer.”

ELM Application Engineer Tim Doyle pointed to the difference between an industrial robot and the collaborative robot. “You want to keep your distance from an industrial robot,” he said. “They’re a dangerous piece of equipment if they’re not used correctly.” And they take up their own space and have to be fenced off for safety reasons, he added. “The collaborative robot,” he said, “is designed to work with people, to sense forces and to ‘understand’ if they come into contact with someone that they’re not working with.”

And programmed to shut down at that instant.

The professionals who work in the robotics field hear it all, and probably the most fundamental subject is the robots-replacing-people issue.

“A lady came to me,” Senior Automation Engineer Marwan Al Masri was saying, “and she said, ‘Why do you put these robots on? Do you think they’re better than us? Do you think they’re better than human beings?’

“I said no, I don’t. That’s definitely not how I think about it. I said, my job is how to make this save your back, and I protect you and others from getting hurt.”

“It’s not about jobs or anything of that nature,” Doyle said. “It’s about saving somebody’s back from doing a tedious job all day long with heavy lifting.”

Added Holmberg: “Move those individuals into a higher-value path, like visual inspection, something that requires more dexterity, to assemble a part, rather than just do stacking and unstacking cases all day.”

As to deploying a collaborative robot: “So you start with your risk assessment,” said Doyle, “you understand your tasks at hand and make sure they’re acceptable, and when you deploy your [robot], it frees you up, gives you more floor space on the manufacturing floor, in your laboratory or in your assembly area.”

“And so, we do simulations ahead of time, to make sure the robot is actually doing what it’s supposed to do,” said Al Masri, “and afterward, test it over and over again. And finally – we commission it.” “And when that solution works,” Holmberg said, “that’s the joy – not only for the customer, that’s the joy in what we do, and that’s what keeps us going back for the next one.”