Should I Buy a Cobot or an Industrial Robot for Pick and Place?

Pick-and-place robots can help speed up the process of picking up objects and placing them in another location, increasing productivity and handling repetitive tasks while freeing up workers for more complex jobs in the facility. When you’re ready to automate pick-and-place activities, one of the first questions to address is whether to use an industrial robot or a collaborative robot. When comparing technologies for these applications, flexibility, ease of use and cost are often the main differentiators.

How Do Pick-and-Place Applications Benefit from Automation?

Pick-and-place tasks generally involve moving an item from one location to another in packaging, palletizing and assembly line applications in many industries including packaging, food and beverage, pharmaceutical, plastics, automotive and others. Assembly tasks require parts to be picked from bins and precisely placed on another object. In palletizing and packaging applications, pick-and-place activities involve locating a product, picking it from a shelf or bin and placing it in a staging area.

Because many pick-and-place activities occur on assembly or packaging lines, performing them manually often creates bottlenecks and slows down production. For these reasons, robotic automation is a great solution for pick-and-place applications in that the speed and efficiency robots offer can eliminate bottlenecks.

Robots are also more precise and consistent than human workers, so the use of robotic automation will likely increase accuracy and quality control in typical pick-and-place applications. For instance, a robot will always pick the correct object for packaging and a robot will always place the object in the precise spot where it is intended to go on an assembly line. This eliminates rejected parts, failed product and scrap. In addition, robots do not fatigue or make mistakes, whereas human workers do, so robots have the ability to keep a consistent speed and eliminate human error in pick-and-place applications.

Pick-and-place activities in palletizing and packaging often involves heavy lifting and repetitive motion which are notorious safety issues for human operators. Robotic automation prevents injuries related to these workplace hazards, which is a plus for the workforce, as well as for the bottom line as injuries are costly in terms of liability and lost productivity.

Since pick and place is a simple, yet fundamental automation application, both industrial and collaborative robots can perform the essential tasks associated with the job. While several types of robots are available for pick-and-place activities, it’s essential to have an understanding of how pick-and-place robots work and the type of automation available for these tasks before deciding whether an industrial robot or a collaborative robot, also called a cobot, is the right fit for a given application.

How Do Pick-and-Place Robots Work and What are My Options?

Both industrial and collaborative pick and place robots are generally mounted on a stable stand in a location where they are able to reach the areas necessary to perform their job. Advanced vision systems allow these automated workers to locate, identify and pick up objects from a bin or shelf and place that object in the required area in packaging or palletizing applications or to select parts from a bin and place them on another object for assembly applications. Many pick-and-place robots can be outfitted with end-of-arm tooling to make them more suitable for specific tasks in assembly, packaging or palletizing applications.

There are several types of pick-and-place robots available, including:

Robotic arm: A five-axis robotic arm is a type of industrial robot that is used for pick-and-place applications where objects are picked up and moved to other locations in a single plane. A six-axis robotic arm can be used in more complex applications, such as when objects must be twisted before being placed in the next location.

Cartesian: This type of industrial robot can work in multiple planes and move in three orthogonal axes using Cartesian coordinates. They typically have better positional accuracy than robotic arms.

Delta: These industrial robots are useful in applications that require robots to pick objects in groups and place them in containers. Using advanced vision technology, they can distinguish between color, shapes and sizes.

Fast pick: For medium- and high-volume applications, these industrial robots are capable of fully automating the picking process and are especially good at picking in high-velocity applications.

Collaborative robots: Less costly and less complex than industrial robots, collaborative robots work alongside human employees in a shared workspace. In pick-and-place activities, they can be used to increase the efficiency of humans by guiding them to the location of objects and optimizing routes or relieving them altogether of pick-and-place activities to prevent injury or free them to complete other higher-value tasks. Several collaborative designs and configurations are available for use in a variety of pick-and-place applications.

Is an Industrial Robot or a Cobot a Better Choice?

While both industrial and collaborative robots are suitable for pick-and-place applications, one technology may be a better fit for a given application than the other based on a few factors, such as flexibility, ease of use and cost.

Because industrial robots may have more force and speed than cobots, they often require physical safety barriers. Industrial robots are also more complex to program. These two characteristics mean that once an industrial robot is set up, placed and programmed for an application, it is likely a permanent situation. Cobots, on the other hand, are designed to work alongside human operators and offer inherent safety features that help reduce the severity of injuries. Typically, following a risk assessment, cobots can be used safely around humans without guarding or barriers. Cobots are also easier to program and can often be reprogrammed to serve a different function, if needed. These two factors make cobots more flexible than industrial robots.

Programming industrial robots and integrating them into their safety barriers and the process often requires professional expertise, while cobots are designed to be simple to program and to work alongside humans without the need for safety barriers. These factors also contribute to the overall cost of robotic automation. The cost for programming, integration and safeguarding can put the cost of an industrial robot well above that of a collaborative robot.

For these reasons, an industrial robot is often more suitable for use in high-volume, precise and high-speed production processes that will remain unchanged for years to come and where an ROI that may take a few years is acceptable and expected. Collaborative robots tend to be better suited where the volume is lower, speed and accuracy aren’t the highest priorities, where there are changing production or application needs and where a swift ROI is important. Still, the best way to decide whether an industrial robot or a cobot is the right choice for an application is by talking to an automation specialist at John Henry Foster about your needs and budget.