Collaborative Robots to Become Commonplace as Automation Gains Momentum in Manufacturing

Feb 9, 2022
8 min read

The last couple of decades have witnessed the influx of automation across various industrial operations, more steadily than ever before. Although automation is being deployed in numerous verticals, the manufacturing sector has been a major end-user of the technology since its inception. With autonomous systems coming into the fore, human error and redundancy have reduced to a considerable extent. One of these autonomous systems is the collaborative robot, or cobots as they are popularly called.

What are Collaborative Robots?

A powerful force to reckon with, collaborative robots have become immensely popular in manufacturing in the recent years. Essentially, cobots are robots that are designed to work alongside employees. Cobots focus on tasks that are considered redundant – say, picking and placing, inspection, and so on, leaving the staff to focus on issues that require problem-solving skills. Since they work alongside staff, they work at a manageable speed and are designed with sensors with which they can be stopped when any person makes contact with them. They are also embedded with safety features such as collision detection and force feedback, thereby making them safe to work with human employees.

More and more companies are working to integrate cobots in their manufacturing operations. Recently, footwear giant Nike made it to the headlines for integrating collaborative robots in its distribution centers to help employees focus on other tasks and increase shipping times. Apparently, more than 1,000 cobots have already been engaged to sort, pack, and shift products through Nike’s warehouses.

Advantages of Collaborative Robots

Establishing collaboration between humans and robots has always been a challenge. This gap is however, eliminated with cobots. These automated systems are evolving into a solution which people can conveniently set up and configure by themselves and use when required. They can be designed to help with monotonous as well as back-breaking tasks so that humans can conveniently work on tasks that require a lot more knowledge and skills.

Cobots are designed with an easy-to-function setup in order to mitigate any barriers to human-machine collaboration. They are developed with intuitive software on account of which it is possible to configure and reconfigure these systems to perform repetitive tasks. This flexibility enables them to be used in a number of industrial operations, making them indispensable in the era of Industry 4.0.

For the human workforce, doing the same task over and over again can be mundane beyond measure. And if the task is risky, the dangers of motion injuries and the like increase as well. With cobots however, enhanced consistency is a given. They possess the ability to perform redundant tasks without being susceptible to injuries or fatigue. By assigning cobots in the manufacturing sector, the other work staff can conveniently perform more skillful jobs without getting burned out.

Amid several workplace risks in industrial settings, cobots help in immeasurably improving safety. For instance, conventionally, robot arms are often used in manufacturing plants for a variety of tasks; however, they lack the functionality to prevent obstacles. Cobots on the other hand will be able to work along with people and avoid barriers as required, thereby lowering the possibility of unnecessary injuries. Many cobots can even be designed to keep people away from dangerous equipment at the workplace.

Types of Cobots

1. Hand Guiding cobots

Hand guiding cobots are typically the ones that have a safety device attached to the robot’s arm that allows people to manually guide the machine around. Guiding through hand movements can be conveniently used to direct the robot to perform various activities. Hand guiding cobots are usually used for mobile applications where they can be moved between stations and provided training periodically for various jobs.

2. Power and Force Limiting cobots

Power and force limiting cobots are the ones that are more often than not, used in small applications as safety barriers. They are specifically developed to sense human contact and end operations, thereby mitigating the requirement for safety barriers.

3. Fenceless cobots (also called “Speed and Separation”)

Fenceless cobots (also called Speed and Separation cobots), are used in instances where a person needs easy access to the robot, even though the situation may not demand much interaction with the person. Zones are set up near the cobot’s workspace, embedded with safety laser scanners. When a human approaches the cobot, its movements cease to exist, until it stops completely when the person is within the reach of the cobot’s space. Once the person steps out of the cobot’s work zone, it automatically resumes operations.

4. Safety Rated + Monitored Stop cobots

Safety rated + monitored stop cobots again, are used when not much interaction is necessary between the human and the robot. These machines detect human presence when they enter the designated area, after which they stop functioning. Once the person leaves, they resume operations without anyone having to switch on/off a button.

Key Applications of Cobots

1.       Assembling items

Manufacturing units demand item assembling on a large scale on an everyday basis; in fact, for most production processes, assembling separate items to create complete products is a regular affair. The task can be quite mundane and tiresome for the human beings. Not just that, the possibility of humans making mistakes is quite high, which may result in huge losses for the company, destroying its brand reputation.

To that end, using cobots for assembling items can be quite advantageous. With collaborative robots taking up this task, factory employees can be freed of monotonous tasks and focus on something more vital. The cobots can be given appropriate guidance to assemble products and be embedded with vision-enabled sensors and other capabilities that can sense human presence and start/stop operations as necessary.

2.       Quality inspection

Maintaining product quality and precision is very vital for any business; indeed, in the manufacturing sector, quality inspection is of utmost importance. In order to ensure complete consumer satisfaction, it is essential that manufactured products need to be of high quality. Inspecting a huge number of products however, can be mind-numbingly tedious for human workers, as they need to conduct the quality checks with utmost precision without losing focus. Even with the best workplace conditions, the chance of 100% accuracy in inspecting products is nearly impossible to achieve.

Using collaborative robots can very much resolve this issue. With effective programming and sensor technology, cobots can be taught to identify the tiniest of defects in products. They can easily identify cracks or blemishes, and notify the concerned personnel before packing the products. Working in tandem with humans, cobots can ensure that high quality is maintained in the manufactured products, thereby helping companies to reduce losses, ensure high production quality, register low operating costs, and record faster cycle times.

3.       Picking, packing, and palletizing

One of the most significant task sets in the manufacturing arena, picking, packing, and palletizing are activities that require utmost accuracy and precision. These are jobs wherein human workers, no matter how careful or attentive, are likely to make mistakes, leading to negative consumer satisfaction levels and ultimately, considerable losses for the company in question. After all, manually performing these jobs can be very time-consuming and labor-intensive. As opposed to human employees, picking, packing and palletizing tasks can be rather easy for collaborative robots.

These automated systems can be efficiently programmed to work alongside human workers and perform the tasks of picking, packing, and palletizing with complete diligence. Some of the best advantages that these cobots boast of are speed and strength. They can work very quickly without compromising on quality; in addition, they can operate all round the clock, working for long hours, without feeling tired. Using cobots can truly elevate the company’s production capacity to a new level, as they achieve manufacturing goals at a faster rate.

4.       Machine Tending

Machine tending basically refers to tending to the requirements of a machine (any machine, say for example, an injection-modeling machine or a CNC machine). This requires people to stand for long hours in front of the machine until it is in operation. The process is highly cumbersome for human workers and can take up a lot of their precious time and energy.

Cobots can be very useful in this regard, as they can be designed to oversee the machine operations for a long time without any supervision. In fact, they can also be developed to oversee multiple machines at the same time – a feat highly impossible for human operators. With the right programming, cobots can be used to tend crucial machinery and increase productivity. Of course, it is also important that these cobots be programmed with the correct input and output (I/O) interfacing hardware that indicates to the cobot, when the material in the machine needs a replacement or when the next cycle will commence.

5.       Handling materials

Handling materials sounds like one of the simplest tasks in the manufacturing sector, and yet, it can be one of the most tedious one out there. Moving materials around a production unit is a crucial task though, and requires a lot of strength and meticulousness. In order to ensure that companies can meet customer expectations, it is essential that they adopt automation, i.e., start deploying cobots for material handling as opposed to human workers.

Collaborative robots can easily be pre-programmed to move materials around a factory floor at faster speeds that human operators. In addition, having cobots take care of material handling can help provide a work environment free of common hazards as the harmful materials are take care of by these automated systems. With the help of cobots, companies will be able to lower operational costs, ensure faster production cycles, ensure better worker safety and good health, and achieve reduced downtime.

6.       Process Tasks

Process tasks include stuff such as welding, soldering, or dispensing. Most production units aim to manufacture goods as per customer expectations while also maintaining lowered prices. In order to achieve the same, they adopt advanced technologies such as collaborative robots.

Process tasks like welding can be really very cumbersome for human workers, no matter how much protective equipment is provided. To that end, companies have started to turn to collaborative robots that can not only work for longer hours, but can also perform the task with excellent accuracy and in lesser time without injury to human lives.

More and more companies are turning to robotic welders to get their jobs done. As per the American Welding Society, there may a considerable shortage (around 290,000) of welding professionals. Statistics claim that close to 29 percent of robotic applications are now welders. Despite the cost to set them up, companies prefer to have cobots for process tasks as it is completely worth the investment.

7.       Finishing Tasks

Human workers use a considerable amount of force for finishing tasks such as polishing, deburring, and grinding. This can not only be cumbersome, but also dangerous, as they may cause injury to the operator. Cobots on the other hand, can provide the force necessary, without causing any injury. They can be well-equipped to handle finishing jobs with utmost accuracy and precision. The cobots can also be programmed to deal with dimensioned parts by means of force sensing.

Automation is expected to play a key role in the future of the manufacturing industry. As the years roll by, more and more collaborative robots are expected to replace their human counterparts in order to increase productivity and reduce downtime. Indeed, deploying cobots may soon become a necessity rather than a luxury, as companies strive to stay afloat in an increasingly competitive economy. This is rather overt from the various innovations that this industry has been witnessing.

Say for instance, recently, Kassow Robots, the developer of 7-axis robot, announced that it plans to launch the KR810 at the A3 Business Forum event at Orlando, between January 31 to February 2, 2022. Incidentally, the KR810 is an industrial cobot that hardly requires safety restrictions. It also delivers a lot of maneuverability, making it the go-to option for working with human operators in manufacturing settings such as assembly lines, retrofit applications, and machine tending.