Robotics technologies are increasing by leaps and bounds in terms of their capabilities, expanding their potential and utility. Historically, functional limitations have meant that companies needed to limit robots to work in just one area of their operation. Recent advancements in robotics are making flexibility both possible and increasingly important. Leading the charge in the push for multipurpose solutions are what is known as collaborative robots.
What Are Collaborative Robots?
Known as cobots, collaborative robots are automated solutions designed to work with and alongside the human workforce, making their jobs easier by completing monotonous or physically demanding tasks. The objective of cobots is to enhance human-robot collaboration. Instead of replacing a person, a cobot can work together with humans, resulting in increased output and improved efficiency across the board.
Typically, cobots are defined as fixed robotic arms that are designed to operate intuitively and safely around people. But today the definition and use cases of collaborative robots are expanding. The term cobot not only refers to arms but also mobile robots that work alongside humans. Combine these by adding a cobot arm onto an autonomous mobile robot (AMR) and you get a powerful mobile manipulator that offers the ultimate in flexibility and utility. Furthermore, the merger of these two technologies in an easy-to-use format will allow more widespread use of cobots by more workers in a wider variety of applications.
What Are the Benefits of Cobots?
Cobots are rapidly becoming more flexible and widely used across industries. Interact Analysis forecasts that cobots will account for 30% of the total robot market by 2027. This same report also estimates that global revenues generated by the collaborative robot market will reach $5.6 billion by the same year. What is driving this positive growth? Here are some of the biggest benefits of industrial collaborative robots.
- Encourages Collaboration: This may seem obvious given the term but encouraging collaboration between people and robotics hasn’t always been easy, or even safe. Cobots are evolving into technology that can be set up and configured by the people who will actually use them. Cobots can be tasked with the back-breaking, repetitive and monotonous work, letting people focus on work that utilizes their knowledge and skills. This is the true power of industrial cobots — robots and humans can work together in a flexible and versatile way.
- Provides Easy Setup and Programming: To remove any barriers to collaboration, cobots are designed for easy setup and programming. Their intuitive software makes it possible to configure and reconfigure cobot applications for multiple tasks and workflows, making them a flexible automated solution that can improve many different areas of industrial operations. This flexibility is key in the age of Industry 4.0, where the interoperability of robots and automated technologies are increasingly mainstream features.
- Enhanced Consistency and Repeatability: Arguably the biggest upside of any robot, but especially collaborative robots, is their ability to consistently tend to repetitive functions without the risks of repetitive motion injuries or fatigue that a person might face. By relegating cobots to these types of tasks, people are able to do more skillful jobs and are less likely to get burned out or even injured.
- Improves Safety: Cobots are helping improve safety in the industrial setting in many ways. Traditional robot arms like those found in automotive plants, are extremely powerful but lack the ability to detect and avoid obstacles. They needed to be sectioned off away from people to prevent accidents. The more intelligent cobot arms can safely work alongside people reducing the potential for serious injuries. And as mentioned, cobots are well-suited for repetitive, labor-intensive tasks, which keeps people from doing tasks that can cause injury and lead to lost time. Mobile robots can keep people a safe distance from each other or from dangerous equipment like forklifts.
6 Application Trends in Collaborative Robotics
The growth of cobots is being driven by their flexibility and ease of use. As the capabilities of these automated machines keeps evolving, manufacturers and warehouses continue to find new and innovative ways to put cobots to work in their facilities. Here are six emerging cobot application trends happening in the industrial workspace.
- Automated Picking: One of the most recent and exciting cobot applications is automated picking. Picking is a notoriously time-consuming, labor-intensive task. It’s estimated that workers in fulfillment roles spend 50% of their workday picking, and this task is becoming even more important as ecommerce and fulfillment businesses see continued increase in demand. Simultaneously, most of these companies cannot find enough people to meet the growing needs of their customers. Solutions with a cobot built onto an autonomous mobile robot are being developed to help alleviate companies’ ongoing labor shortage. Mobile manipulators will be used to select products off a shelf and deliver them to a workstation or finished goods area. This will allow workers to focus on more skilled jobs like quality assurance while also saving them from walking long distances, which in many warehouse settings can add up to more than 10 miles a day.
- Assembly Line: The cobot arm is a great tool for the assembly line, as it supports workers by doing many manual and repetitive tasks that can speed up workflows. What’s more, the flexibility of cobots means different aspects of your assembly line can be automated depending on your needs.
- Machine Tending: Machine tending completed by a human requires them to feed raw material or parts into a machine for processing, then remove these parts and send them to their next production step. This is another great opportunity for a person to delegate a monotonous task to a robot. With a cobot, machine tending can be done by a robotic arm, increasing speed and production while allowing people to focus on more skillful work. This can be illustrated with a manufacturer stamping out parts that need to be regularly inspected by workers. A mobile manipulator with cobot arm integrated onto an autonomous mobile robot can be tending the machine while workers inspect parts as required. In off hours, the cobot can continue to pull parts and also set parts aside for QA at regular intervals so the completed parts are ready for testing at the beginning of the shift enabling 24/7 operation of these machines.
- Packing, Packaging, and Palletizing: Packing and palletizing are industrial functions that can leave workers physically drained and bored in the workplace. This is where cobots come in — they help increase output and safety of the workers who are hustling to get products out to customers. AMRs equipped with robotic arms, conveyors, or lift tables are all examples of collaborative robot solutions that are helping improve packing and palletizing functions. These automated tools can be used independently or together, meaning manufacturers and warehouses can adapt and change their packaging processes without disrupting workflows.
- Materials Handling: The Robotic Industries Association put it best: material handling collaborative robots can tackle the most physically demanding, hazardous, repetitive, and monotonous tasks on a production line. In manufacturing and warehouse settings, having a cobot with a heavy payload can help increase efficiency, deliver higher quality products, and increase worker safety. The best materials handling cobots easily communicate with other automated solutions in a facility, such as a packaging or palletizing robot. Using what is sometimes known as interoperability, a robotic platform or arm can easily interface and connect with other robots, helping to further automate a workflow and optimize the overall speed of an industrial operation.
- Automated Replenishment: Another repetitive task perfectly suited for a cobot is raw material replenishment. Using a cobot, such as a mobile manipulator, automated replenishment of parts for people doing complex assembly processes or post process inspection can greatly increase production speed. For example, a manufacturer with a machine that applies a coating or adhesive to a product would need a person checking the raw material levels and replenishing them as needed. To automate this process, a cobot can be programmed to deliver the necessary parts on a schedule, ensuring no downtime and consistent output while allowing the worker to focus on product inspection.
Cobots have become more mainstream due in large part to the development of easy-to-use robot technology. At Waypoint, our mission has been and will always be to build accessible robots that can be configured and put to work by the workforce on the job today. Our AMRs are built to work seamlessly with a number of top modules, such as cobot arms, conveyor systems, lift decks, shelving, and other custom solutions that improve collaboration between people and robots. Contact us to learn more about mobile manipulators, cobots, or our family of industrial-strength, omnidirectional AMRs.