How to Successfully Introduce a Cobot into the Workplace

Collaborative robots, also called cobots, are getting a lot of attention because they address labor shortages and enhance productivity in a more cost-effective way than traditional industrial robots due to a simpler set up (think more along the lines of plug-and-play than complex system integration) and their ability to work alongside humans, while freeing them from performing repetitive tasks in order to attend those with more value.

For these reasons, collaborative robots are on the wish list of many manufacturers, but it can be challenging to identify where and how to successfully introduce one into your business. Here, we suggest four tips for an effective introduction, including determining where a cobot can add the most value, finding the right location and workflow, performing a risk assessment and alleviating resistance from employees.

Find the Application Where a Cobot Will Add the Most Value

The first step in a successful introduction of a collaborative robot is to analyze the workplace and its processes to determine where a cobot will add the most value. Ideally, jobs that operators do not like to perform or are hazardous and/or ones that create bottlenecks in the process are excellent jumping off points for a collaborative robot as their speed will prevent bottlenecks while also reducing workplace fatigue and injury.

Tasks with time-intensive, but simple steps, those that require multiple operators and jobs with routine quality problems may also be great candidates for the application of a collaborative robot because their speed, precision and ability to work alongside human operators will increase workplace productivity while also reducing scrap, waste and quality control issues. In addition to enhancing productivity, quality and safety, using cobots in these types of applications will release workers from these tasks and allow them to perform value-added activities that involve decision making, high dexterity and technical know-how. As everyone knows, humans have a tendency to make mistakes when performing repetitive, tedious tasks because there’s not much thought or concentration required, thus it’s easy to become distracted in these situations.

Typical applications for collaborative robots include machine tending, material handling, pick and place, assembly, palletizing and packaging as these are all areas that tend to create bottlenecks and are often high in worker injury and quality control issues. Increasing productivity and reducing waste and injury will provide the most bang for your cobot buck.

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Determine the Workflow and Location

Even in an ideal application, a cobot is only effective and efficient if it is properly placed. Seek a location that allows both operators and the cobot to complete tasks efficiently and safely without getting in each other’s way or encountering obstacles. The most efficient location should provide easy access to the parts and areas within the workspace that the cobot will need to reach to complete the job. In addition, there should be an area where the collaborative robot can be properly secured and anchored for safety purposes.

Assess Safety Risks

Although most cobots are certified as safe to work alongside human employees due to their built-in safety features, it does not mean the application is automatically considered safe. For example, cobot designs often include force-sensing technology and many models allow programmable control for these settings so the cobot can be tuned to the needs of the system and application, but if it will be handling tooling such as a sharp knife, it may necessitate special covers or guards to prevent hazards for nearby workers. Or, if there is a chance a collaborative robot and a human worker may collide, the cobot may need to be altered or moved to a safer location. In addition, the maximum speed at which cobots can operate isn’t always the optimal speed for the application or for the safety of the employees who share the workspace, so speed may need to be adjusted accordingly to prevent injury in the event of a collision.

For these reasons, a risk assessment is needed to consider these and other potentially dangerous situations, just as it would be when introducing other machinery into the workspace. A risk assessment should include a thorough study of each and every potential hazard, the severity of possible injury, the ability to avoid injury and the frequency of exposure to risks for each potential hazard. Once the hazards are identified and assessed, measures should be taken to alleviate the risks and ensure a safe installation of the collaborative robot. When conducting a risk assessment, refer to current safety standards for cobots. ISO/TS 15066 and RIA/TR 15.606 outline the methodology for assessing risks and recommend that the process evaluates the collaborative workspace, including access and clearances, as well as how a human worker will interact with the cobot.

Communicate with Employees

Often, human operators will be worried about job security once automation is introduced into the workplace. Open and honest communication is essential to avoiding employee resistance. Before installing a collaborative robot, it might be helpful to ask for employee input regarding the jobs they do not like to perform, ones that require too much of their time or ones that cause fatigue or boredom. Providing input will give employees a sense of control, ownership and security and may help you determine which application will provide the most value.

It is also helpful to explain to workers that the cobot is not replacing them, rather it is performing tasks that are dirty, boring, or hazardous in order to relieve them of mundane jobs so that they may use their decision-making or logical-thinking skills to complete more important and more valuable work. Presenting the fact that management is making a significant investment in the workplace will reinforce to employees that corporate wants the business to remain open, productive and competitive so that their jobs can remain in house and in the current location.

The initial installation of a collaborative robot will certainly come with some challenges, but it will be a fantastic learning experience and a successful installation will see a relatively speedy ROI due to the productivity gains. Further, lessons learned along the way will make the next installation smoother and employees will likely be less stressed and more willing to help in the decision-making process.

For more tips on introducing a collaborative robot, please speak to a representative at John Henry Foster.