Collaborative Robots: Fad or Revolution?

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As a mother of 4 young children with a full time job in robotics, I completely fantasise of the day when I can close my front door and go to work in the knowledge that my robot maid, let’s call her Francine, will have the house cleaned when I get back.  The dinner will be on the table, the washing hanging on the line and my kitchen will be shining with a slight smell of bleach in the air.  Believe it or not, that day isn’t too far in the future and I am shamelessly putting my hand up to offer to trial the prototype!

The dawn of the “Cobot” or “Collaborative Robot” is upon us.  Cobots are robots that can interact with humans without being guarded behind a screen.  They can detect the human presence and adapt to it.  One touch of the human palm to a cobot will act as a stopping and restarting command.   Cobots range in size from large industrial sized Fanuc cobots that can lift cars to small humanoid ABB cobots.   Kuka and Universal also supply small collaborative robotic arms.  These collaborative robots have actually been in existence for over twenty years with the first, known as “Unimate”, having been commissioned by General Motors in 1996.  It wasn’t until 2012 however, that they were readily available on the mass market.

I myself work at Horan Automation and Consulting, an Irish company that specialises in the integration of industrial robots.  Over the past few months I have been interacting with industry professionals who are interested in cobots but do not want to be the first to take the plunge.  In the robotics industry, we are surrounded by buzz words like IOT and industry 4.0 but engineers tend to wait it out to see which technology is here to stay.  With huge budgets at stake who can blame them for not wanting to make a mistake.

Marketing people however (and I speak for myself here) are not as patient as engineers so I decided to do a little research into cobots and found that their sales are set to thrive.

In fact, Barclay’s bank predicts that the demand for cobots is forecast to increase tenfold in the next ten years.  Robotics, by its very technological nature, is an industry that is constantly evolving.  With all new technology there are advantages and disadvantages and it is a concern that cobots may replace humans in the workplace allowing manufacturers to yield a more consistent product with a significant cost saving.  After all, robots can work for 24 hours a day, don’t take lunch breaks and don’t ask for holidays.  The return on investment for cobots is reported as taking as little as six months.

In my opinion, cobots will not affect jobs.  Cobots are not designed to replace humans but rather to carry out tasks that are deemed harmful or impossible for humans to do.  For example, a cobot can perform intricate tasks that require a lot of dexterity and cause repetitive stress injury in humans.  They can also perform heavy lifting duties or handle harmful toxic substances or extremely hot components.  Cobots are designed to work with humans so they integrate into the production process and enhance it.

Unlike standard industrial robots that are designed to increase output efficiency by increasing speed and quality, cobots unique selling point is not their speed.  They are therefore not in direct competition with the standard six axis robots we are used to in manufacturing.  Cobots operate at a speed akin to humans and they have a short human-like reach.  They also require a lot of documentation including safety certification so that they are suitable for human interaction.  At Horan Automation and Consulting, we can furnish our clients with such safety documentation and easily integrate cobots into the manufacturing environment so this does not present an issue for us.

Cobots are a great investment for a manufacturing facility and are applicable not only to the multinational companies but also to the medium sized production companies.  One huge advantage is that they can be easily re-programmed and moved to a new location if the tasks they were originally assigned to change.   This makes them not only accurate, safe and cheap but also flexible.  By 2025, it is predicted that cobots will be a common addition to many factories.  An increase in sales of cobots should also see a reduction in their cost over time.  Technology will continue to advance bringing us cobots that not only do repetitive manual tasks but also can access databases, recognise people and their environment.  We should eventually see cobots that can identify problems and devise solutions, effectively making decisions.

My assessment of cobots is that they are not a threat to the large Fanuc six axis robots of the world but rather a separate solution to a separate automation issue within the same industry.  They should not be seen as a fad and should be taken seriously as a way for a company to reduce staff absenteeism and increase productivity.  They will be deployed on a one robot per job ratio so the job losses should not be an issue.  An increase in productivity as a result of the cobot should allow for the staff member who originally did the cobot’s task to be re-allocated to another position.  As a result of my research, which I thoroughly enjoyed, Horan Automation and Consulting will be offering and integrating cobots.   Contact sales@horan.ie for more information or call (052) 9152208.

In the coming decade or more, I would expect that cobots will also prove useful for other areas of the environment such as in the social setting.  Cobots would be a welcome addition to any nursing home or hospital to aid in lifting patients.  With affordable pricing, cobots would also be embraced in most homes to execute menial housekeeping duties and improve people’s work-life balance.  After all, Saturdays are for relaxing not cleaning toilets!

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