Cobots in Manufacturing: Your New Coworker Might be a Collaborative Robot

By Poornima Apte, Contributor | June 24, 2020

Even before Covid-19, collaborative robots (cobots) attended to tasks that fell into at least one of these categories: dull, dirty, or dangerous. As the world goes back to work, with social distancing rules in place and a potentially smaller onsite crew, expect to see the adoption of cobots increaseboth in the immediate future and long term.

Cobots by their very definition are meant to work well with others.

Unlike their clunkier forerunners cordoned off in cages due to worker safety concerns, cobots by their very definition are meant to work well with others. While data-fueled Industry 4.0 smart technology is paving the way for smart manufacturing, human-cobot interaction is the foundation for the next technology wave: Industry 5.0.

In addition to a collaborative nature, cobots “learn” new tasks quickly and are easy to program. Cobots are designed to work with humans and move much less erratically than large industrial robots. Their lower pricesstarting at around $25,000makes them more accessible to small to mid-sized manufacturers that can struggle to bring automation to the plant floor. That’s because they generally manufacture a large variety of products in low volumes. Cobots are especially adaptable in this space as they can take on dozens of tasks with very little downtime.

Dull, Dangerous, Dirty, and Precise Work

Cobots can be deployed pretty much everywhere to take on tasks that are dull, dirty, and dangerous.

While you might imagine cobots look like R2D2, they can take any shape depending on the task. For example, cobots range from chatbot avatars on websites to physical robots designed to zip around carrying heavy loads. The manufacturing industry likely has the most potential for integrating cobots with features like mechanical arms that do a range of jobs including machining, welding, polishing, and spray-painting. Much like a dentist switches equipment for different procedures (drilling, polishing), cobots work with various tools fitted to mechanical arms to complete various tasks.

Cobots help in a variety of ways across industries. Following are examples that illustrate the dull, dirty, dangerous, and even the ultra-precise work they’re performing alongside humans.

Manufacturing Production Lines

To rivet together three components of a car's crumple zone, workers at the Mini Cooper factory in the UK were using a 5 pound tool at least 350 times every shift. The work was both dull and dangerous potentially leading to body strain from repetitive use of a heavy tool. But now, their new coworker manages this undesirable task. Her name is RITA for Riveting Innovation Technology in Assembly. RITA works side by side with human plant employees to load and perform the riveting tasks. Employees control and supervise all processes, making the interaction with the cobot truly collaborative. If workers notice anything amiss, they can suspend operations and restart the line when corrected.

Cobots make attractive plug-and-play solutions

A cobot takes care of similar tasks at Ford's factory in Cologne, Germany. Ford Fiestas are dipped in a special chemical bath to make them corrosion resistant. Sometimes small untreated spots are left behind that can affect the paint job quality performed further down the line. Six cobots help by “feeling” the car surface for untreated spots. Then they sand down spots and vacuum the dust left behind. The entire surface of a car can be sanded in under 35 seconds using a battery of cobots. It cuts the time it takes a single operator to do the job and helps workers reach previously inaccessible places. To cap off the collaboration, human employees check the cobots' work before pushing the frame down the line to the primer and painting stations.

While these examples showcase cobot work in automotive manufacturing, their use extends beyond the car production line. Cobots make attractive plug-and-play solutions in a variety of manufacturing situations for different industries including telecommunications, foods, and chemical plants.

Warehouse Order Fulfillment

The key to improving worker productivity is to keep them engaged in the task at hand. Deploying cobots to fetch is the best way to achieve this in e-commerce fulfillment. Amazon warehouses for example, use orange cobots that look like robotic vacuums programmed to locate and retrieve items through scanning and matching RFID tags. These cobots zip around and retrieve items for an order (pickers). They save time and energy, freeing employees to attend to other tasks like inventory management.

Cobots can also carry heavy loads and even entire pallets, helping prevent employee injuries. For packing operations, a cobot with a mechanical arm can pick up items from a conveyor belt and pack them in boxes for delivery. These processes are still challenging for cobots though, as mechanical arms need to understand the physics of surfaces to apply the appropriate amount of pressure with finger-like “grippers.” While humans understand instinctively that eggs need to be handled with a lot more care than say books, cobots must be trained to do so. Many cobots today also can't handle varying objects, i.e. if a peanut butter jar rolls down the line in addition to a toothpaste box. Researchers expect future iterations to get much better at recognizing and handling fulfillment complexities.

Health Care Efficiency and Precision

In the health care industry, cobots help with material handling and pick-and-place tasks similar to how they operate in manufacturing processes in other industries. At the Johnson & Johnson distribution facility in Jacksonville, Florida, a cobot, affectionately labeled “The Hulk” for its green color, handles ergonomic tasks like lifting heavy objects to reduce worker strain.

Pick-and-place and sorting tasks that cobots perform with ease are especially useful in processing large volumes of lab tests. Cobots in a lab in Copenhagen University hospital sort vials of blood samples by scanning barcodes and arranging tubes by color.

Arguably, the most promising applications of cobots in health care are in surgery. This diverges from the “dirty, dangerous, or dull” task parameters, but precisely programmable cobots can also help make delicate surgeries less invasive. Cobots like the da Vinci system are already helping to translate a surgeon's hand movements into more precisely calibrated motions.

Another example is a device called CyberKnife that helps physicians deliver accurate doses of radiation to patients at the exact site of a tumor. The cobot’s precision is helpful in treating cancer because it targets only malignant cells, leaving healthy ones untouched. This kind of cobot can also get a 3D view of a tumor that indicates how to approach the site to deliver radiation.

Startups such as XSurgical are considering entirely remote surgery conducted by cobots, with surgeons relaying instructions from a distance. This scenario can be used in war zones, for example, or other dangerous situations. Early surgeries, according to XSurgical stakeholders, will involve only essential procedures that stabilize patients before transport to army hospitals.

No, Cobots Won't Kill Jobs

The growing use cases for cobots is good news for all industries, especially manufacturing. Given how difficult it can be to find labor, cobots can help ease the burden. Prior to Covid-19, the talent market looked anemic. It was estimated that about 2.4 million U.S. manufacturing jobs would remain unfilled until 2028. The potential economic impact was gauged at 2.5 trillion, according to a 2018 Deloitte study.

Manufacturing workers often face endless, repetitive tasks that are prime opportunities for cobots. The collaborative nature of cobots means that jobs are not usually lost, just made better.

Paradigm Electronics, a Canadian manufacturing company, is one example. The introduction of cobots didn’t lead to job loss but a redefinition of work. People went from being machinists to robot programmers. It wouldn't be a stretch to say that cobots relieve humans of dead-end jobs and help them build a career instead of being endlessly stuck in the same repetitive tasks. It can be a winning combination for employers and employees.

Can Cobots Help During the Next Disruption?

Can cobots keep manufacturing and other industrial processes safer from future disruption? With the reduced and staggered workforce caused by Covid-19, cobots can definitely help fill in gaps. But cobots alone have limited capabilities and can’t carry the entire supply chain on their backs.

Cobots can, however, deliver considerable advantages and flatten disruption caused by a diminished workforce. Exactly how this will happen also depends on the kind of disruption. Cobots can't resolve supply shortages but businesses that implement strategic, long-term inventory management can certainly help.

The Future of Cobots

Expect dramatic growth in the use of cobots—both in industries that adopt the technology and in the number of units deployed. You might even see cobots harvesting crops or helping in restaurant kitchens.

Cobot manufacturers are competing to make them less expensive and more complex, with better vision and sensing systems. Then cobots can take on more complex tasks involving touch and pressure. Expect cobots to become a more integral part of the industrial landscape. The market for cobots is estimated to grow at an astonishing 41.8% compounded annual growth rate to reach nearly $8 million by 2025, according to Markets and Markets. The global revenue for cobot mechanical arms alone is expected to hit $11.8 billion by 2030, ABI Research predicts.

That’s great news for both enterprises and workers as cobots continue to augment the workforce in exciting new ways.

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