Are Collaborative Robots More Efficient than Workers?
The core motivation at the heart of technological advances is the desire to create tools that provide an improvement in our effectiveness as workers and, in turn, our business as a whole. As advances in technology continue, they broaden the boundaries and landscape of what was thought possible, and forces employers to be constantly reexamining practices they once thought unchangeable. Few fields have seen this concept so aptly applied more than the field of robotics. Industrial robots are continually improving and integrating themselves into functions hardly imaginable only decades ago. The emergence of collaborative robots, designed to work next to and sometimes directly with humans, has opened new territory in the robotic/worker dynamic, and begs the question have collaborative robots surpassed humans in efficiency? The answer is a little more complex than you may realize.
What is a Collaborative Robot?
A collaborative robot (referred to in short as a “Cobot”) is a robot intended for direct human/robot interaction within a shared space, or where humans and the robots will be working in close proximity of each other. The first cobot was invented in 1996 labelled as ‘a device and method for direct physical interaction between a person and a computer-controlled manipulator’. From there the field grew exponentially, with Kuka Robotics launching their first cobot line in 2004, and Universal Robots releasing their own in 2008. In 2015 Universal robots launched their UR3 model, which is a lightweight cobot specifically designed for tabletop use.
The need for collaborative robots arose from the desire to have a more versatile robot than the traditional industrial robots. Industrial robots, which have been around in a modern sense dating back to the 1950’s, are fully autonomous in their work and do not share space with workers. They fulfill such tasks like welding, painting, assembly, disassembly, among others. Since they do not work in close proximity to humans, industrial robots work at high speeds whereas cobots work at more manageable speeds and have built in force limiting for the safety of the workers around it.
How does a Collaborative Robot work in relation to workers?
The IFR (International Federation of Robotics) defines four levels of collaborations between cobots and workers:
- Coexistence: Human and robot work alongside each other without a fence, but with no shared workspace
- Sequential Collaboration: Human and robot are active in shared workspace, but their motions are sequential; they do not work on a part at the same time.
- Cooperation: Human and robot work on the same part at the same time, with both in motion.
- Responsive Collaboration: The robot responds in real-time to movement of the human worker.
While all four of these levels of collaboration are in use today, most collaborative applications in modern industry fall under ‘coexistence’ and ‘sequential collaboration’.
Cobot vs Workers
When it comes down to actually evaluating the efficiency of a cobot against that of a human worker, there are many pros and cons to consider. On the surface level, there is the very noticeable advantage cobots have in they, quite simply, don’t have the needs of humans. They don’t get tired or injured, they are able to make less mistakes and keep the same pace of work throughout their shift. They are able to do repetitive tasks, at a fast rate of speed, without injuring themselves. Also, cobots are not limited to a standard work week, they can run 24/7 without taking a sick day or vacation. On top of that, they are able to complete potentially dangerous or harmful work, quickly, that a human would need to do more slowly to avoid any serious risk.
Those are all great advantages, and all ones that are noticed from the naked eye. So, it would seem cobots would be the fool proof choice between the two, right? Well, don’t go re-assigning your workforce quite yet. Underneath the surface, cobots, however impressive, are still just that; collaborative robots. They will need programming and quite a bit of it in order to fit into your company’s system seamlessly. A lot of manpower from your company will be needed to troubleshoot and integrate the machine into your workflow. In addition to the “training” you’ll be giving your cobot, you will also need to train your own employees on how to work with the cobot to ensure safety and synergy. You may have workers that are extremely comfortable and efficient with how things had previously been ran and their efficiency will take a hit for a time while they figure out a new routine with the cobot. The costs hiding below the surface, while not insurmountable, are enough to make you take a serious look at the decision.
Overall, the benefits of a collaborative robot are huge, and their ceilings have yet to be reached; however, choosing the correct cobot for your needs and one that will integrate well into your company is of the upmost importance, otherwise there is a good chance you won’t be running at your most efficient. To further understand what collaborative robot may suit your business best, and to learn more about how to safely install and program your cobot, reach out to JHFoster today.
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