What if robots didn’t take the place of humans, but worked alongside them? That’s precisely the reality when cobots — collaborative robots — are added to the workforce. When you can design your workflow to capitalize on the best attributes of humans and robots, there are many benefits.
What is a cobot?
Cobots are the latest generation of robotic systems, and they are intended to work alongside humans. Thanks to enhancements in sensor and vision technology, cobots do not need to be secured behind a cage to keep humans in the workplace safe from the rapid movements and heavy bulk that are typical in earlier generations of industrial robots.
Advances in computing power and robotic technology along with a smaller price tag, an average of $24,000 each, make cobots a realistic option for small- and medium-sized businesses. Now the benefits of advanced robotics are available to these companies to help them compete with larger manufacturers.
- Easy to program: No programming expertise is needed to set up and operate cobots quickly. Often, they are virtually plug and play or easily programmed through a tablet or by adjusting the cobot’s arms.
- Fast to set up: Unlike traditional industrial robots that take weeks to be operational, the setup time for most cobots is just a few hours.
- Flexible: Traditional robots are often bolted to the floor and deployed for a particular application. Cobots are flexible and mobile, don’t require a lot of space and can be redeployed very easily to support new and multiple applications.
- Safe: Cobots don’t need safety cages to keep your human workforce safe on the job when they are working. They can sense obstacles and adjust their speed or reverse to avoid crashing into humans (or other obstacles).
How are cobots used in operations?
The more dirty, dull and dangerous tasks cobots can take over from humans, the more opportunity people will have to take on higher-level or creative functions. Here are a few ways cobots are used:
Hand guiding: Similar to a traditional industrial robot, a hand-guiding cobot has an additional device at the end of its arm that is pressure sensitive. This allows the human operator to teach the cobot how to hold an object or how fast to move something so that nothing gets damaged.
Power and force limiting: When a power- and force-limiting cobot senses something abnormal in its path, it can stop all movement or reverse movement if necessary to avoid impact. These cobots are designed to regularly collaborate with humans.
Safety-monitored stop: This operation allows a cobot to work independently, but when a human needs to intervene, the cobot will sense the presence of the human and stop all motion until the worker has left the safety zone.
Speed and separation monitoring: Similar to the safety-monitored stop, this feature means the cobot operates in a safety zone. Rather than stop when it senses someone has entered the safety zone, it can slow down and track the location of the human. If the human gets too close, it will stop.
Cobots in operation
While cobots might be the workforce of the future, at this point they still represent a small portion of the annual sales of industrial robots each year. Several companies are showing improved efficiencies and lower costs, and have removed the dull, dirty and dangerous tasks from humans when they have humans and cobots working together. Here are a few ways they are currently deployed:
Ford Fiesta plant: In Cologne, Germany, Ford factory workers, and cobots are teaming up on its assembly lines to install shock absorbers on cars.
Amazon fulfillment center: Cobots bring shelves of merchandise to Amazon associates to prepare for shipment. Now that robots are on the job, it takes just 15 minutes to complete an order that used to take an hour.
Online supermarket Ocado: Similar to how Amazon uses cobots, this plant has the human pickers who fill orders stay in one place, while the cobots move around to get products.
Companies are turning to technology to compete in response to shrinking labor pools as Baby Boomers retire and labor costs increase. Cobots manufactured by companies such as Rethink Robotics, Kuka, and Universal Robots hope to provide solutions to these labor and cost concerns. We can only expect interest in cobots to continue as the new reality of humans working alongside robotic colleagues becomes the standard for better performance.