Automating part of the production line is a big step for companies. Instead of going all the way with a traditional programmable robot, a collaborative robot arm can be a valuable in-between solution. Also known as cobots, the technology is more affordable, more space-efficient, and excels at ease of use.
Cobots enable rapid replacement of skilled labor or expertise in case of scarcity of qualified employees or when production needs to be sped up. As with any disruptive technology, a critical view on its implementation is necessary. Let’s take a look at how you will know if a cobot is right for your team.
A cobot’s versatility
A cobot is a robot that can work alongside human colleagues on the production or assembly line due to various safety features. Cobots can over their tasks where beneficial, such as:
- Perform tasks such as injection molding, MIG welding, brazing, lathing, wire EDM, stamping, and polishing
- Aid in visual part inspection
- Assist with product assembly, especially for hard-to-reach spaces
- Pack and palletize
- Machine tending
The most decisive advantage of a cobot over an industrial robot is flexibility, especially since production environments have to become increasingly agile to deal with low-volume, high-mix work.
Cobots are more mobile and take up less floor space than traditional industrial robots. And it’s easier to reprogram a cobot for different tasks or product variations, relieving the scheduling and automation nightmare that comes with the mass-customization megatrend.
Some brands even offer apps that let staff manually enter end-effector positions, draw from libraries for specific tasks like circular welding and butt joints, and store custom movement sequences with a few button clicks. Kits are offered for quick installation and specific use cases.
The user experience is worlds apart from that of programming a traditional robot, which in its own dedicated environment requires deep expertise and endless tweaking. As a result, the barrier to entry for operators is lowered significantly while accelerating deployment and ROI.
Cobots, such as the ABB YuMi, are compact enough that they can share a desk with an assembly worker, completing tasks together. Automatic tool changers enable faster and sophisticated operations, and fasteners or bonding materials can be continuously supplied with ultimate precision, further ensuring consistent product quality.
Reduced waste and low-voltage operation help companies in sustainable manufacturing, which 68% of C- and VP-level decision makers in the manufacturing industry report increasing to the highest importance in corporate history. For complex tasks, the technology can provide assistance to lower-skilled employees, foregoing the need to hire experts. By partially delegating formerly human skills to cobots, you can decrease downtime and cycle times.
Cobots are a relatively new and unknown technology, but they are true contenders compared to conventional robots, especially for small companies in agile work environments with lower budgets and expertise levels.
Disadvantages of cobots
Cobots are no heavy lifters and, therefore, are relegated to light manufacturing and logistics tasks. A cobot’s success depends on many factors related to the application and work environment. Traditional robots are more predictable and better suited for high-volume production. Also, humans still perform better for some complex tasks that would require advanced AI and sensor-enhanced pattern recognition or spatial awareness.
When humans and robots occupy the same space, there are inherent safety issues to be addressed. Dangers can be minimized with camera vision, laser scanners, torque sensors, LED and audio feedback, and machine learning-enhanced pattern recognition. Still each case demands critical risk assessment taking into account unpredictable factors.
Striking the right balance
Whether your workforce is ready to adopt a cobot in their midst will depend on:
- Readiness to learn what it takes to program, operate, and maintain it.
- Willingness to step away from monotonous, repetitive strain injury-inducing jobs into a more interesting role.
- User-friendliness of the technology.
With the advent of no-code robotics, interacting with robots will become a comfortable experience. The myth of humans becoming obsolete will fade when your employees realize that working with robots can be pleasurable, technically accessible, and that production will exponentially accelerate given that one human operator can keep four or more robots running.
Whether your company is ready will chiefly depend on the nature of their production orders. Cobots are ideal for taking over repetitive or unergonomic tasks in variable production runs that still require a human to do a portion of the work. Plant managers increasingly need to see the worksite as a dynamic hybrid of different creative solutions. Whether to hire a human, a robot, or a cobot to do the job remains a complex but ever-more pressing decision.
Cobots are more flexible, mobile, and affordable than traditional industrial robots, and they can be sped up to meet the qualities of a traditional robot for high-volume manufacturing production, even if it requires appropriate safety measures. With their ability to improve product quality, throughput rates, and ultimately job satisfaction, it is clear that the trend toward worksite cobotization will continue.
About the Author
Doug Walker is a digital marketing specialist at Fictiv, a manufacturing platform for sourcing design and engineering teams, to streamline prototyping and accelerate product development. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org