Over the last half-century, robots have been relied upon as an integral part of manufacturing. Their presence offers incredible benefits, including enhanced production speed, accuracy, and tireless labor. However, they can’t do it all. As a result, robots have been increasingly prevalent in the manufacturing environment year after year. Engineered to work collaboratively alongside their human counterparts, these smaller and agiler implements on the manufacturing floor are referred to as collaborative robotics.

Breaking Down Collaborative Robotics

Rather than replacing a worker in completing a specific task, collaborative robots, more colloquially referred to as cobots, are designed to enhance a production team’s capabilities on the shop floor. With modern, plug-and-play functionality, cobots shed their larger predecessors’ bulky protective cages and lend precision, power, and agility to their teams.

a picture of a single arm robot and manufacturing employee working simultaneously as an assembly station where collaborative robotics are in use

As innovations in robotics make these tools more user-friendly and affordable, smaller manufacturing operations will benefit from their integration.

Coming in at around 3 feet in height, these lightweight additions to the manufacturing process are quickly becoming fast friends with their increasingly specialized human coworkers. This is due in large part to the shedding of misguided anxieties that robots will replace workers outright, which is quite unlikely to take place within our lifetime. It is increasingly recognized that collaborative robots elevate human workers from positions of mundane and repetitive natures to more specialized roles, valued more highly by both companies and individual workers alike.

Primary Cobot Operations

While cobots can certainly be designed for specific purposes and roles according to customer specifications, by and large, they are intended for specific types of operations within the manufacturing environment.

The most common utilization of cobots emerges in power and force limiting roles, whereby robots are near people and must remain continually aware of the power and force that humans can withstand at all times. This means the acceptable level of energy transferred through sudden impacts and collisions with people is maintained below a maximum threshold determined by the International Standards Organization (ISO).

A picture of a manufacturing floor robot arm where collaborative robotics are in use

By and large, collaborative robotics are intended for specific types of operation within the manufacturing environment.

Sensing and monitoring technologies come into play to enable safety monitored stop operation in cobots, where nearness to humans is the primary focus. In this case, the response to a human passing the proximity threshold is for the cobot to terminate motion. The same technology is used in speed and separation monitoring, whereby the speed and proximity of a human are tracked about a cobot’s position. Preventative measures are taken, namely a reduction in the speed of operation, as the worker draws closer to the cobot in operation.

The final common collaborative cobot operation resides in hand-guiding, which is reserved primarily for delicate production processes. In such operations, pressure sensing arrays enable cobots to learn from operators the proper orientation and speeds at which objects can be manipulated without causing damage.

Where Cobots Lose Sight

With such great market potential, collaborative robotics will no doubt be increasingly adopted by manufacturing operations of every size. Small and medium businesses will benefit substantially from the drop in supplier prices as the technology becomes more readily available, as well.

A picture of a worker and cobot working in manufacturing facility where collaborative robotics are in use

For cobots, working alongside often spontaneous and unpredictable human colleagues poses the greatest opportunity for incidents to transpire

While all this is true, there is still plenty of room for improvement when it comes to cobots. In particular, machine vision will make substantial headway for cobots in manufacturing, where working alongside often spontaneous and unpredictable human colleagues poses the greatest opportunity for incidents to transpire. Additionally, humans may complete tasks in several different ways and place the tools they use in different locations for later use. What experts see as the zenith of collaborative robotics resides in the ability for cobots to one day anticipate their human colleagues’ needs and provide the necessary tools or support to complete tasks in real-time. Machine vision is seen as the primary component in making this idea a reality. Those days are still a long way off, but the developments taking place now bring the possibility nearer with each passing day.

About Encompass Solutions

Encompass Solutions is a business and software consulting firm specializing in ERP systems, EDI, and Managed Services support for Manufacturers and Distributors. Serving small and medium-sized businesses since 2001, Encompass modernizes operations and automates processes for hundreds of customers across the globe. Whether undertaking full-scale implementation, integration, and renovation of existing systems, Encompass provides a specialized approach to every client’s needs. By identifying customer requirements and addressing them with the right solutions, we ensure our clients are equipped to match the pace of the Industry.