Automation has become a prominent part of the manufacturing landscape in industrialized nations over the last few decades, leading to advances in efficiency and a reduction in costs.
As more and more companies turn to automation and artificial intelligence (AI), collaborative robots are starting to become commonplace in the manufacturing cycle. Collaborative robots, or cobots for short, are robots that work in a shared physical space with humans, allowing humans and robots to work together. Cobots have risen in popularity since 2010, and in many situations are preferred to traditional manufacturing robots that are designed to work in a segregated area with little to no interaction with people.
The Cobots market is expected to grow significantly in the next decade. According to the Global Collaborative Robots Market Analysis 2019, the global collaborative robots market is expected to reach $18.1 billion by 2026(1). In 2018, the global collaborative robots market size was estimated to be $649.1 million(2), meaning market experts are expecting staggering growth in the field by the mid-2020s. There are several reasons why this level of growth is expected in the cobots market. There is an increasing demand for automation across all industries, but particularly manufacturing where tasks can often be repetitive and have the potential for injury. Adding to this, cobot technology is advancing every year. Cobots are becoming more widely available, and less expensive, currently estimated to be an average of $24,000 each. These dropping prices and increased functionality likely to encourage cobot adoption in small and medium-sized enterprises that in the past may have overlooked the technology.
There are several situations in which robots working in tandem with employees can lead to a highly efficient, flexible, and reliable production process. For example, cobots can be used in product assembly, product pick and place process, injection molding, placing of parts, and quality inspection.
Heavy lifting is one area where collaborative robots can really help improve efficiency to production cycles, as well as reducing the risk of injury to employees. The CR-35iA cobot by FANUC can carry payloads of 35kg and is designed to work on repetitive heavy lifting jobs like those found in the packing and distribution, automotive, and metalworking industries. These robots are designed to work in the same space as human workers, and stop moving when they are touched.(3)
Some heavy lifting cobots require a human to line the object up for them before they begin the lifting process. A human conducting this task on their own may tire quickly of lifting heavy objects and need to take a break or find themselves slowing down. Similarly, a cobot may handle the heavy lifting without a hitch, but pick the item up in the wrong way which may lead to damaged items and costly consequences for the company. This is one example of humans and robots working together to reduce cost, improve the quality of the end result through precision, and maintain a fast-paced schedule.
Other cobots may be tasked with work that requires a high degree of fine motor control or with delicate products as is often the case in electronics manufacturing. Rethink Robotics is one company that specializes in cobots for electronic component manufacturing. They have cobots that can separate “good” and “bad” circuit boards on assembly lines, a job which can be repetitive and difficult for people.
Let us take a look at some companies using cobots in their manufacturing cycle.
American multinational Automaker, Ford, has been using cobots since 2016 to help workers fit shock absorbers to their Fiesta model cars in their Cologne factory. These cobots are around 3 feet tall and are fitted to strategically placed mounts where than can work alongside people, and relinquish them of some less desirable heavy lifting duties.
Production worker Ngali Bongongo said:
“Working overhead with heavy, air-powered tools is a tough job that requires strength, stamina and accuracy. The robot is a real help.”(1)
Ford’s cobot of choice was developed by KUKA Robotics, a Chinese-owned manufacturer that specializes in robotics and factory automation.
Minnesota based company, Dynamic Group, specializes in intricate injection molded parts for medical and electronics industries. In an effort to boost its competitiveness, Dynamic Group decided to give cobots a try. The cobot picks and places the component at the injection molding site, transports the components to the trimming area, and then places the end product in front of the operator where the next stage of development can begin.
Dynamic Group CEO Joe McGillivray said:
“We went from having three operators on a single shift to being able to run three shifts per day with just one operator per shift. So we essentially quadrupled our production capacity and our scrap went from significantly high to near zero.”
Collaborative robots are being used at the BMW MINI plant in Oxford, UK, to make the riveting process more efficient. Prior to the implementation of cobots, the end to end riveting process was conducted manually with the factory workers first loading the rivets and then performing the riveting. BMW’s cobot of choice for this process is the KUKA LBR iiwa cobot made by KUKA Robotics. This cobot works in tandem with the worker, whose job it is to load one side of the jig, so the cobot can start working on the other.(4)
CATI is an automotive component manufacturer based out of Maharashtra, India. They were facing challenges when it came to finding manual labor, as well as problems with faulty end products caused by human error. CATI wanted to reduce the number of customer rejections that were a direct result of these faulty outputs from the production line. They worked with a company called Universal Robots to find a cobot that could handle a payload of 5kg, and be able to work in an area with human workers rather than being fenced off.
CATI went with the UR 10 cobot which was tasked with loading and unloading a vertical computer numerical control (CNC) machine, as well as performing an inspection on the products. Implementing the cobot has helped reduce customer rejections and increased production by a huge 15-20%.(5)
At King’s College London University in the UK, a collaborative robot called GROWBOT is helping greenhouse workers pick plants. Picking plants is a highly repetitive task and one that relies heavily on seasonal workers which often leads to staffing shortages.6 While this isn’t strictly a case of cobots being used in manufacturing, it stands as a noteworthy example of the varied use and adoption of cobots across industries and a peek into a future where cobots are a common feature of the business landscape.
Gregory Miller is a writer with DO Supply (https://www.dosupply.com) who covers Robotics, Artificial Intelligence and Automation. When not writing, he enjoys hiking, rock climbing and opining about the virtues of coffee.