Collaborative robots, better known as cobots, have seen serious uptake across the manufacturing industry in the wake of COVID. Despite industry challenges caused by depleting workforces and supply issues, investment has been made in cobots due to their cost efficiency, ease of use and collaborative convenience. Cobots work alongside humans to facilitate productivity, reducing the need for unskilled labour and providing upskilling opportunities for workforces, which are still required to manage warehouse automation and cobot integration.
These benefits have made cobots noticeably popular with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), as they require gradual introduction of automation whilst retaining flexibility and manageable costs.
Recent ABI reports show the cobot market is set for substantial growth over the coming decade, with a global valuation of $600 million in 2021 and forecast to reach $8 billion in 2030, a projected growth of 32.5%.
Universal Robots is a key market leader who, in the first quarter of 2021, earned $66 million from cobot arm sales alone, more than 32% up on the previous year. This is no surprise after the vast increase in online orders during COVID, causing warehouse automation to move from a nice-to-have to a necessity.
Thanks to features such as – six degrees of freedom, high flexibility, and easy integration into existing production environments, their UR3, UR5, and UR10 cobots are seen as a go-to solution for a wide variety of applications. This includes roles such as picking and placing, quality control and inspection, injection moulding, assembly, palletizing, packaging, and more.
However, with improved user interfaces and systems updates now available for cobot technology across the board, smaller challenger companies are hot on their heels. Here’s a few I’ve had my eye on.
Festo is traditionally a pneumatic and electromechanical system manufacturer, but in the last ten years has diversified it’s offering to include a range of collaborative robotics. The first of its three cobots to watch is BionicCobot, a lightweight pneumatic robot inspired by the human arm. The second is BionicMotionRobot, which took inspiration from the movement of an elephant’s trunk. Third is OctopusGripper, a bionic gripper based on an octopus’s tentacles.
Techman Robot is the only collaborative robot manufacturer based in Taiwan. It offers cobots with embedded vision systems, software, and application-based solutions to the market. Established in 2016, it has a network of more than 100 distributors in China, Europe, Japan, South Korea, and Southeast Asia.
Within just three years of its launch, the company became the second largest global cobot manufacturer, and sees continued expansion and growth in this space. Having successfully established branches and sales teams in multiple international locations to ensure customers have access to localised service and support, Techman is certainly one to watch for its innovative approach to this budding global market.
Robotiq creates cobotics tools for robots to use, rather than job specific robots. They also supply a series of plug-in add-ons to amplify the robot’s arm functionality and custom program templates for companies looking for faster implementation of cobots for many typical applications.
The company has four key products to watch: a robotic hand with three fingers, adaptive grippers with two fingers, a sensor with force touch that gives touch-sense capabilities to the robots, and a camera vision system for that needed object recognition. Their most famous tool, UR, is actually used by Universal Robots themselves!
Despite the fact welding remains a largely manual process, the introduction of robotics and AI is enabling its gradual automation. Enter the Hirebotics BotX Welder. This robotic welding system includes Universal Robots’ UR10e cobot arm, a welder, wire feeder, MIG welding gun, weld table, and configurable user-input touch buttons. The aim of the BotX Welder was to address the nationwide shortage of skilled welders and the difficulty of producing quality parts quickly in small runs.
Second to this, it has released the Cobot Welder, a newer system that eases more difficult automated welding implementations. A key aspect of this is reliant on its accompanying smartphone app, which enables welders and engineers to program the cobot without a robot teach pendant, with 24/7 global monitoring and maintenance support available.
In an aim to tackle the welding labour crisis, Cobot Welder includes a standard hardware package for companies that want to empower their welders with cobot automation. A refreshing approach which showcases the collaborative benefits of cobots and how they can help, rather than hinder, the future of manufacturing.
The industry perspective of cobots has taken some swaying, as alongside its introduction production workers, engineers, managers and safety professionals were presented with unique safety challenges. One of the main challenges when implementing cobots is that investment must not only be made in the technology, but in the ongoing training and upskilling of workforces to facilitate future expansion.
Mark Lewandowski, Procter & Gamble's Global Engineering Robotics Innovation Leader, was on the committee who wrote the safety standards for collaborative robots, and comments that before writing these standards, a key learning for P&G’s approach to collaborative robot applications was born from a safety-first mindset.
The beauty of cobots is that they are not impeding opportunities from humans but driving progression and career opportunities. Safety professionals should understand that ongoing training is required, and that wider strategies are required prior to implementation to ensure seamless integration to critical production processes.
In order to work at maximum efficiency, engineers must program a cobot to learn its boundaries, maximize operational space, and understand restricted modes. This programming ensures safe restrictions to a cobot’s speed, which has been standardised by organisations such as the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), International Standards Organization (ISO), and the Robotics Industries Association (RIA). Artificial Intelligence is also being used to understand the magnitude of force required for specific production tasks, like picking up a soft fruit versus a hard rock.
AI can also allow the cobot to detect changing workspace conditions, like a human being too close or the products being picked up in the wrong order. Cobot’s can also be programmed to avoid collisions with other objects it detects, however humans are still required to manage all these functions. If the programming fails, human co-workers are trained to access emergency stops to immediately shut cobots down.
Since being programmed to adjust force and speed accordingly, the severity of inadvertent contact with workers is drastically reduced, with a noticeable decline in reports of muscular skeletal which share a large percentage of work injury claims.
Worker training should always be conducted by a qualified health and safety professional or other expert who can adequately prepare workers for any potential hazards.
With an ongoing industrial transformation journey underway, the use of cobots alongside an upskilled people-led workforce can be expected. The result looks to be a vast increase in efficiency and output, whilst retaining key employees through incentivising progression opportunities.
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