Collaborative robots (cobots) are gaining traction in modern manufacturing facilities. Prices have steadily fallen into the realm of affordable for most small and medium-sized manufacturers. By offloading the repetitive portions of a human counterpart’s workload, the cobot increases overall output, accuracy, and safety.
With COVID-19 forcing businesses to reevaluate collaboration in the workplace, cobots are entering conversations at an increasing rate. Where two humans may not be able to share a common space, a human and a cobot can do so safely without sacrificing productivity.
Cobots Are Built For – Wait For It – Collaboration
When we examine robotics and automation in the age of Industry 4.0, we can identify many familiar, though more archaic, forms of robotics in the manufacturing facility. Unfortunately, many of these examples pose quite a hazard to their human coworkers. Robot cell design has traditionally put human safety at the forefront and locked these machines in cages or behind walls.
Cobots break free of those bonds and work right alongside people. By design, they are considerate of our fragility. Internal and external sensors ensure they speed up and slow down operations based on proximity to humans.
This is just one example of how collaborative robots are making their adoption more palatable in the factory.
With a starting price tag on most models circling $25,000, cobots are more affordable than they have ever been.
As adoption increases and innovation in human-cobot collaboration proliferates, we can expect to see even more exciting technologies and use cases emerge as Industry 5.0 approaches.
Collaborative Robots Make Smart Manufacturing Accessible
Not only can we program cobots to perform any series of dull, dangerous, and dirty tasks ad nausea, but we can also ensure they adopt new methods of performing work easily.
This is in stark contrast to hard or fixed automation examples in industries like aerospace and automotive manufacturing.
Those robots, generally referred to as articulated robots, are built with one purpose in mind and are rigid in their programming. Changing tooling and behavior takes significant effort. Too often resulting in lost production time. These robots even risk becoming obsolete as production changes over time.
On the other hand, collaborative robots can be reprogrammed and equipped with novel end-of-arm tooling to complete an array of complex tasks. Whether the job requires drilling, stamping, welding, gripping, or just about any other method of manipulation, chances are there is a cobot solution out there already or currently being developed.
The experience of programming cobots is becoming more intuitive every day. Examples like drag&bot and block come to mind, with simple drag-and-drop coding snippets that can program a robot to perform manufacturing tasks. as the coding environment becomes more accessible to workers who traditionally had a hands-on interaction with jobs, the result is new ways of achieving efficiency. This is in stark contrast to a computer science-oriented way of thinking about manufacturing scenarios.
Not only this, but career machinists can put their valuable knowledge to work in new ways that spark creativity, growth, and fulfillment in their careers.
Where Cobots Fit Into The Manufacturing Facility
Collaborative robots in manufacturing can take the mundane and stressful in stride. Excelling at dull, dirty, and dangerous tasks is what they do best.
Consider cobots scaled-down versions of other familiar robots already utilized in manufacturing facilities around the world.
Bench-top models resemble miniature articulated robots, at 3 to 4 feet in length. They are agile, lightweight, and customizable to an array of tasks. These same robots can also be mounted to mobile platforms. This can expand the cobot’s range of operation, assuming many different assembly tasks with the quick changeover from station to station.
Mobile cobot examples are also gaining momentum ferrying materials and components to staging areas so that staff doesn’t waste time walking from their bench to picking locations in your facility. Manufacturing and distribution centers gain incredible productivity when these useful robots can carry weights no human possibly could between storage and staging areas. The result is more employee engagement regarding the tasks at hand, fewer opportunities for accidents, and less time wasted walking the floor.
Mobile robots also make managing inventory much easier on your operations. They can complete non-stop audits of inventory, suggest amended sorting based on the flow of goods, and other efficiency opportunities based on the data flowing from their sensors into your ERP system. Businesses can then bring planning and scheduling to greater levels of efficiency, driving supply chain management like never before.
Beyond the physical examples, there are digital examples of cobots to consider, too.
Chatbots answer visitor inquiries on your website and report back to your CRM with visitor profile data.
Robotic Process Automation (RPA)
Robotic process automation (RPA) routines fall into this category, too. They handle repetitive data entry and admin tasks at an exponentially faster rate than humans. Not only does this example enable immense cost savings for large operations, but smaller businesses can remain competitive by handling more tasks with fewer costs sunk into non-revenue generating activities.
Both examples automate repetitive tasks that free your staff to take on more creative and value-added work.
All these collaborative robots fit into your facility in some way or another and feed the information they gather into enterprise systems.
These data transactions inform every level of your business, enabling you to make more intelligent decisions on the fly.
The Elephant In The Room – Fear Of Replacement
Ever since robots made their debut on production floors, humans have feared being replaced. Robots don’t complain, they don’t get tired, and they don’t get paid.
Despite these perks for companies, perhaps the biggest drawback when it comes to robots is that they don’t think for themselves.
They do not innovate; they do not come up with more efficient ways of doing things and they certainly are not creative. In this sense, they are about as dumb as the sum of their parts without a human giving the orders in the form of a program.
Before Covid-19, talent was hard to come by, especially for skilled trades in manufacturing. Cobots were one way to ease the burden these companies faced in a “sellers” market for talent. According to one 2018 Deloitte study, as many as 2.4 million U.S. Manufacturing jobs were expected to remain unfilled through 2028. This translated into an economic impact of $2.5 trillion.
The argument can be made that many skilled workers complete repetitive tasks daily. These tasks are the target of cobot solutions. These tasks wear on the hungry mind or eat at the fragile structures of the human body, the result is nagging injury and unfulfilled potential.
When cobots shoulder the burden of these tasks, their human counterparts can develop personally and professionally.
Take the Paradigm Electronics cobot example into consideration. The introduction of collaborative robots into the workplace didn’t lead to job loss. Quite the opposite. Those staff who were machinists up-skilled to robot programmers. Those traditionally static jobs fell by the wayside to be scooped up by cobots. The resulting dynamic was not a job loss for humans, by a redefinition of their professional roles and responsibilities.
Collaborative Robot Proliferation
The rise of cobots has shown to bring more benefits than drawbacks.
Industries continue to adopt the technology and human workers see the benefits in their adoption.
Even start-ups can reap the benefits of a workforce that doesn’t slow down and can always remain nimble to the changing landscape of business.
Whether it be on the manufacturing floor, the vineyard, or the back of the house at a restaurant, cobots are fast becoming a part of our daily lives.
Every day the price of cobots is driven down by fierce competition among robot manufacturers.
Innovations in sensing technologies and machine vision further increase efficiencies.
Currently, the cobot market is expected to exceed $11 billion by 2030. According to ABI research, the greater cobot ecosystem, which includes software, tooling, and customization, is expected to grow to $24 billion by the same time.
The above picture reveals a bright future for manufacturers and workers as this exciting technology develops.
About Encompass Solutions
Encompass Solutions is a business and software consulting firm that specializes 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.