Cobots and the Future of Advanced Robotics in Manufacturing

Historically, automation in manufacturing has been a bit of a hammer. And as machine operators and plant managers alike know, not every problem is a nail. 

Fortunately, automation in manufacturing has advanced considerably over the last several years, bringing more agile, more cost effective, and safer solutions to manufacturing’s most wicked problems. Collaborative robots, also known as “cobots,” are an emerging group of robots which meet ISO’s criteria of performing “tasks of a collaborative nature while sharing all or part of its reach space with human operators”. While working safely and efficiently alongside human operators is the defining trait of collaborative robots, there’s a long list of advantages these lighter, smarter robots offer compared to their traditional counterparts.

What’s the difference between cobots and traditional industrial robots?

Thanks to embedded safety and external force sensors, cobots don’t always have to be  guarded from human operators. While their smaller size and integrated safety features, results in collaborative robots having much smaller payload capacities and slower speeds than their large, stationary, high speed industrial robot counterparts, cobots perform many of the same tasks, but they do so alongside human operators who can quickly adjust for process variation and even teach the robot new processes without having to go through tedious shutdown and lockout procedures.

Traditional industrial robots such as cartesian, SCARA, articulated, and delta robots can be very effective at high speed applications with little to no variation, and at lifting large payloads or exerting significant force. But in situations where process variation is frequent, these large, heavy, stationary, expensive machines can cause more downtime than they’re worth. Collaborative robots are not only less costly, they’re also light enough to move to different workstations, and are easily programmed and “taught” by regular human operators.

What’s more–working alongside these safe, easily programmable robots alleviates human workers of having to perform the facility’s most mind numbing and unergonomic work. Collaborative robots’ simple programming and learning capacity make them reliable, unquarrelsome coworkers.

Safety and efficiency with advanced collaborative robotics

“The robots are coming to take our jobs!” may make for a scandalous headline, it’s hardly an accurate representation of the future which collaborative robots represent in manufacturing. Rather than replacing human workers, cobots are designed specifically to help human workers by taking on the most unpleasant and/or unsafe tasks, and by making human workers’ jobs more enjoyable. With a workforce stretched increasingly thin, human operators and managers alike would agree that workers can use all the help they can get. Cobots are the sorely needed supply to the workforce’s demand for increased support. 

Worker safety, which should be every plant’s highest priority, can be difficult and tedious to protect around traditional stationary robots, which have no built in safety features. Even protected by rigorous guarding  and lockout procedures, these traditional industrial robots are an ever present danger to the human workers in your plant. This isn’t the case with collaborative robots. Thanks to a network of optic and external force sensors, collaborative robots sense objects–such as humans–around them, and react accordingly. Once a simple post-installation risk assessment has been completed, cobots can work safely alongside humans in any environment which is safe for human operation. Collaborative robots are also ideal for rapid programming. With the help of collaborative robots, human operators can be safer, and enjoy their current jobs more–while increasing productivity and accuracy. 

In 2019, Forbes listed the top five growth applications for collaborative robots were picking / packing / palletizing, welding, assembly, material handling, and quality inspection. Cobots are also becoming adopted across the automotive manufacturing industry.

Robot grippers for collaborative robots

Like articulated and SCARA robots, cobots can be outfitted with a wide range of robot accessories and grippers designed for various applications. Thanks to the flexibility of collaborative robots, cobot grippers are typically easy to quickchange. Gripper changes can be performed quickly by human operators–again, with no need to shut down or lock out machines–or the cobots can be programmed to change their own heads.

Cobot grippers come in a wide range of configurations, including two finger, palletizer, magnetic, single pad, three finger, vacuum, soft, and custom applications. OnRobot, for example, one of our industry leading robotics suppliers, has been revolutionizing palletizing operations with specialized cobot grippers for both palletizing and slip sheet handling, high payload lifts, and guided flow programming for turnkey operations.

Collaborative robots and the future of manufacturing

Industry experts have been pointing to cobots as the next stage in advanced manufacturing with increasing zeal for several years, but the excitement has picked up considerable momentum in the wake of COVID. In 2019, TCT Magazine reported that “cobots offer greater agility and responsiveness than industrial robots, which makes them well-placed to meet the changing needs of the manufacturing process,” listing BMW, Nissan, and the Port of Rotterdam’s Additive Manufacturing Fieldlab among companies pioneering cobot-integrated processes. The Smart Automation Certification Alliance emphasized the cusping importance of cobots in January of this year. As the workforce continues to find a new way of operating in a post COVID world, all signs point towards an increasingly integrated human-robot workforce. 

It’s not exactly the cyborgian AI takeover depicted in science fiction. Quite the contrary–cobots are literally designed to be friendly with humans, and to assist them in their tasks. Perhaps in the not so distant future, collaborative robots’ increased presence in the workforce will temper society’s negative view towards AI, as cobots demonstrate the power of advanced robotic solutions to improve human lives.

In summary: collaborative robots aren’t coming for workers’ jobs, but they are here to help facilities meet continuing product demand in a rapidly evolving–and understaffed–workforce. With the right customized application, cobots not only offer manufacturers the opportunity to increase efficiency and production, but also human worker safety and satisfaction. 

If you’re interested in learning more about how collaborative robots could improve operations in your facility, reach out to our expert staff.

Want to see how much you can save by purchasing a robot? Our Robotics Savings Calculator will help you estimate the three-year cost savings of implementing a robotic solution from JHFOSTER. Savings can be seen in cost of employee vs robot, savings in cost per production unit, and savings in operating cost per hour.