What are robots, really?
When asked what a robot is, most people describe a futuristic, humanoid being capable of doing complex tasks in seconds. While this isn’t entirely untrue, in reality, robots are of many types, and traditional industrial robotic arms have actually been around for decades in the manufacturing space. However, the problem with these traditional robots is that while they are capable of lifting large payloads and performing repetitive tasks, they are often massive, inflexible, and pose a huge safety threat to people on the shop floor and need to be specially caged or fenced off – something that requires a large amount of space, which can be uncommon on factory floors.
With these issues in mind, a trio of students from the University of Southern Denmark realized the need to democratize automation with a type of robot that could work flexibly alongside humans on the shop floor, while also being easy to use and quick to deploy. They went on to create the world’s first collaborative robot, or cobot, in 2008, under the brand name Universal Robots. Today, while the company remains the pioneer and leaders in the field of collaborative robots, with 50,000 cobots sold around the world so far. According to the International Federation of Robotics, the number of cobot installations grew by 23% between 2017 to 2018, and continues to rise steadily. This is especially as the technology seeks to enable automation for manufacturers of all sizes, made possible through its many unique features that we highlight in this article.
Human Robot Collaboration
Also written as HRC, Human Robot Collaboration is when people and robots work together in the same physical environment to achieve a shared goal. Traditional robots have been known to injure and – in extreme cases – even kill people due to a lack of safety features. In contrast, a collaborative robot, as the name suggests, is designed to work with humans on the shop floor. This is made possible through advanced features, including a protective stop that is activated when an object obstructs the cobot’s path. Because of this, cobots can often function without the need for any safety scanners or fences. Of course, like with any technology, an application risk assessment is first required to make sure the entire solution is truly safe for people to work alongside – for example, if the application is dangerous, then caging is recommended. However, the cobot itself was crafted with highly advanced safety features that usually eliminate the need for any extra precautions. In fact, Human Robot Collaboration is one of the most fundamental features involved in the inception of the collaborative robot.
Cobots also have a very low footprint, thanks to the small base as well as the eliminated need for cages. The largest cobot from Universal Robots, for example, has a base of just 190 mm in diameter while their smallest table-top robot has a 128 mm diameter base. Plus, cobots can even have zero footprint if mounted upside-down, which is a possibility thanks to their immense flexibility. Because of this, collaborative robots can be deployed in places where space is a constraint. Since land is such an expensive asset, this feature of cobots is especially valuable to SMEs and MSMEs which tend to have smaller factory floors. This is also true in industries such as the electronics sector where people often work closely on crowded assembly lines.
Ease of Use and Quick Deployment
Cobots can be up and running for a simple application within a span of just half a day – even if you have not had any prior robot programming experience! That’s because collaborative robots come with an intuitive teach pendant – much like a phone tablet – where you can input different waypoints and press “Play” for it to follow the path you create. Of course, the cobot cannot carry out an actual application without some sort of end effector, for example a gripper for pick and place or camera for visual inspection. By simply choosing a compatible end effector and integrating it with the cobot, the whole system can now Plug & Produce within minutes.
Arguably one of the most interesting features of a cobot, flexible redeployment is the ability of the cobot to be programmed and re-programmed for different applications as a manufacturer’s needs change. For example, when another bottleneck is identified, one may decide to move the cobot to a new line and create a new program for it to improve efficiency or quality there. This happened in L’Oreal India, when one shampoo line shut. Instead of the cobot not having any use anymore, the L’Oreal team simply redeployed the cobot in a different line instead, without needing any help from an external distributor. This makes a cobot function more as a tool in the shop floor worker’s toolbox, rather than a heavy, fixed installation that has only one use.
Enabling Partial Automation
Traditional automation methods tend to be fixed, immovable installations that are made to carry out an entire set of processes. This is often cumbersome, expensive, and occupies tons of valuable factory floor space, making it quite a challenge for business owners to implement these automation techniques. With a cobot, however, a manufacturer can choose one specific task to automate, rather than an entire line or set of processes. One may, for example, choose to have a cobot handle a task that is dangerous or monotonous while a person can work alongside the cobot to work on an application that requires human ingenuity. Because of their low footprint and flexibility, they can even be installed by making few to no changes to the existing production layout. This makes automation much easier and more affordable to achieve, as manufacturers have the power to decide the best combination of elements to optimize efficiency and quality.
The Scope for Cobots
In general, the world has witnessed an immense upwards trend in robot deployments, with numbers increasing by the year. It was only in 2019 that the International Federation for Robotics (IFR) actually analyzed the market for collaborative robots, however, and found that while cobots make up for a very small, niche percentage of industrial robot deployments globally, the popularity and media attention of cobots is growing rapidly and has massive potential. In fact, the IFR found that cobots are an ideal entry point for robotic automation, especially for small and medium business owners who may not have the finance, space, or expertise for traditional automation means.