Have you heard about “cobots”? If you answered yes, you are in the minority. In a poll by Packaging Digest, 60% said they are unfamiliar with collaborative robots — or, “cobots”.
Surprised? We were. That’s why we thought we’d share a few facts about cobots — at least, what we know so far, because, in the manufacturing world lately, no sooner do you type something than you find it’s already moved on!
WHAT ARE COBOTS?
Cobots, short for “collaborative robots”, are robots designed to work side-by-side with humans — but without protective guarding. In other words, they tick the box of “human-friendly” automation.
By working side by side with humans, cobots can take on the more-strenuous, mundane and repetitive processes, freeing the human operator to do other value-adding tasks.
COBOT = GAME-CHANGER?
Many industry experts say that cobots are changing the game in the manufacturing world. As one of the pillars of Industry 4.0 (which we talk about in this blog), the collaborative robots market is predicted to reach US$3.3 billion by 2022. Ford Motor Company is currently trialling cobots in its Cologne assembly plant in Germany to help workers fit shock absorbers to the company’s Fiesta model.
So what exactly makes cobots a game-changer?
One reason is their cognitive powers. Cobots are much smarter than traditional industrial robots, not to mention smaller, more active and more adaptable. It’s almost like having another human employee.
And for smaller manufacturers in particular, this is game changing.
Speaking of game changers, automated inspection is another. Check out this whitepaper on how automating quality processes is the key to delivering the highest quality products. And that’s the key to the highest quality profits.
KEY ADVANTAGES OF COBOTS
By providing support and relief to human operators, cobots can help offset rising wages. They can take on the labour-intensive, mundane jobs — such as taking items off conveyors, stacking and packing — so human employees can be used for more value-adding (and interesting) tasks. Added to this is the fact that cobots are available for an average of US$24,000, which makes them a cost-effective option for smaller enterprises.
Cobots are designed to work safely in close proximity with humans, without the need for protection. In other words, there are no heavy, rapidly swinging arms and parts that pose a risk to human operators. Instead, cobots are equipped with sensors that allow them to stop if they detect anything remotely human in their path. Get in their way, and they’ll stop.
That said, some manufacturers are still concerned about safety and install protective guardrails around them, which entirely defeats the purpose of a cobot.
Boost overall efficiency
Cobots and humans together can streamline processes and increase efficiency. Cobots can be programmed to do certain tasks at a certain speed, which makes them consistent and predictable. Research conducted by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers at a BMW factory revealed that teams comprising humans and robots can be more productive than both all-human and all-robot teams. And because of the cobots’ pace-setting ability, human idle time dropped by as much as 85%.
Easy to train
To date, there’s been an emphasis on producing cobots that are easy to program and operate. There’s no need to call the programmer to set up the cobot; a shift worker can “train” it by moving their arms in the required motions or using a tablet.
Cobots are designed to be highly adaptable, so they can be moved around to different parts of the line. This is made easier by the fact that they don’t have any guarding, so are more mobile — they’re practically plug-and-play.
Job loss fear
Employees fear that cobots are taking away their jobs. Cobots can be seen as just another employee (albeit one that takes fewer breaks!). But in reality, by taking on the jobs people hate doing because they’re repetitive, mundane, dusty or strenuous, cobots aren’t replacing humans but are actually moving them into more interesting roles.
Overcoming this fear comes down, in part, to managers, who need to ensure employees understand the new opportunities. One way to do this is to take a page out of Ford’s book and ask your employees what tasks they think would be suitable for a cobot. Ford sought feedback from more than 1,000 production line workers before starting its trial last year. This is an effective way to ensure that your employees feel included in the process, rather than pushed out. In addition, it will also give you valuable perspectives from the factory floor.
Cobots are won’t deliver high-speed packaging and labelling; they’re simply not designed for that purpose. Rather, cobots are designed to work more slowly than traditional industrial robots, so they can work alongside humans safely (there’s that point again). By “slow”, we’re talking 1-minute or 2-minute process-cycle times.
Collaborative robots currently represent only about 5% of global industrial robot sales, but they are becoming more widely available. Until now, automotive companies have led the charge. But the ability of cobots to create a more productive work environment means it won’t be long until forward-thinking companies in other industries get on board.
Tell us, do you plan to use cobots in your organisation?
A year ago, I wrote about how industry experts were predicting 2016 to “be the year of robotics, big data, automation and serialisation”. Looks like they were pretty accurate on all fronts! Have a quick re-visit for interest. While this blog on how next-generation robots are transforming manufacturing gives another insight into robotics.
Check out Matthews’ great resource library. It has a host of great information that’s all free to download! There are whitepapers, presentations we’ve done to industry bodies, infographics for manufacturing, case studies, articles from our thought leaders, vids showing solutions in action and more!
Image credit / Palto