UB engineers lead NSF award to study human and robot collaboration in the remanufacturing industry

Assistant professor Minhui Zheng (right) and assistant professor Xiao Liang (left).

Xiao Liang (left) and Minghui Zheng are collaborating on an NSF-funded project on human-robot collaboration for the safe disassembly of electronic waste.

By Peter Murphy

Published September 9, 2020

Xiao Liang, assistant professor in the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering will work with Minghui Zheng, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and the University of Florida on the $3 million, NSF-funded project, The Future of Remanufacturing: Human-Robot Collaboration for Disassembly of End-of-Use Products.

Human-Robot Collaboration

“We hope our convergent research will allow adjusted and enhanced collaborative disassembly systems in future remanufacturing factories. ”
Minghui Zheng, Assistant Professor
Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

“This project will advance effective human-robot collaboration to reduce electronics remanufacturing costs and improve operator safety,” Liang says, “the research crosses boundaries between robotics, sustainable design, human factors, data science and labor economics.”

One of Liang’s specialty research areas is artificial intelligence (AI). He and his PhD students have worked to develop an alarm system in AI frameworks allowing for human intervention in structural health monitoring. According to Liang, this research utilizes a similar concept.

“This project focuses on robot-assisted disassembly to increase productivity, while enhancing job satisfaction and ensuring worker safety,” Liang says, “Robot assisted automation with human-in-the-loop is an emerging topic and a promising solution for other areas in civil engineering such as structural health monitoring, infrastructure inspection and construction automation.”

Zheng, the principal investigator, focuses on planning and control for collaborative robots (co-robots). According to Zheng, this research will bring co-robots into the disassembly system. “The research will also positively impact engineering education and workforce development,” Zheng says, “I will focus on robotic planning, learning and control such that the co-robots can collaborate with human operators safely in a complementary and interactive way.”

This project in particular examines end-of-use products in remanufacturing. Specifically, the work deals with electronic waste such as used computers and mobile devices.

“Besides the obvious environmental inspiration, such as consumer interest in green products and scarcity of resources, potential profits from salvaging valuable materials and components have motivated the consideration of end-of-use-product recovery and remanufacturing,” Liang says.

According to Zheng, the project will focus on five interdependent research tasks within the context of future technology, future worker and future work: work environment monitoring with human motion prediction; planning, learning and control for collaborative robots; disassembly sequence planning under uncertainty and exploring human robot collaboration (HRC)-inspired design guidelines; human-robotics system integration; and modeling and prediction of economic impacts of HRC in remanufacturing environments.

“Specific knowledge gaps among these five components will be addressed by mutual interactions among product design guidelines, human-robot collaboration, occupational safety standards and remanufacturing labor market,” Zheng says. “We hope our convergent research will allow adjusted and enhanced collaborative disassembly systems in future remanufacturing factories.”

Liang will perform fundamental studies on collaborative disassembly systems for end-of-use products. According to Liang, “UB will conduct work environment monitoring with human motion prediction and planning, learning and control for collaborative robots. The University of Florida will focus on disassembly task allocation, humans and occupancy safety as well as potential labor economic impacts.”

Both faculty members worked with UB’s Sustainable Manufacturing and Advanced Robotic Technologies (SMART) on seed grants for the preliminary work associated with this project.