Few production arenas are changing as quickly as small parts assembly. The electronics industry, in particular, has seen demand skyrocket past the supply of skilled labor. As conventional assembly methods diminish in value, manufacturers are finding it strategically and economically imperative to invest in new solutions.

Today’s collaborative robot needs to be safe enough to work side-by-side with its human coworkers without safety caging.
For manufacturers, the market has changed the rules in ways that can be addressed effectively only by automation. The “new norm” of small parts assembly is higher product volumes, shorter product lifecycles, shorter lead times, and a growing trend to customize goods — particularly electronics — close to final markets.

From a human perspective, manufacturing’s role in job creation is also changing as companies invest in process improvements that allow them to compete more effectively. The rapid rise of smart electronics has increased the demand for highly skilled production workers capable of consistent precision. This impacts every industry that incorporates small, sensitive parts into its end products.

Companies must rethink their approach to robotics and automation, focusing on replacing complex and complicated processes with flexible and agile systems.

The Market Demands a Highly Flexible Solution

The market requires the flexibility to handle constantly changing products that have lifecycles as short as several months, and sometimes less. The solution needs to be easily portable and redeployable as well as able to fit into existing workspaces designed for humans.

It also needs to employ innovative programming methods so intuitive to use that anyone can do it without special training. It has to have senses and motor control comparable to humans. Above all, it needs to be safe enough to work side-by-side with its human coworkers without safety caging and without being threatening.

Collaborative robots are incredibly precise and fast, returning to the same point in space over and over again to within 0.02 mm repeatability, and moving at a maximum velocity of 1,500 mm/sec.
At first glance, processes on manual assembly lines might seem relatively simple to automate, but in reality, it is not easy to replicate human abilities. Humans have touch and motor control that allows us to handle delicate things with dexterity and precision, as well as judge how much force to use on a given component so that we do not break it. Humans can see where an item is, easily pick it up, and are able to handle an incredibly diverse variety of parts without pausing. Humans also have spatial awareness that allows us to interact closely and in harmony with our coworkers.

The Challenge in Designing Collaborative Robots

In designing collaborative robots, the challenge is to determine how to replicate all of these human attributes in a way that is cost-effective, essentially recreating the minimum number of senses and abilities necessary to be at least as safe as humans, yet still able to provide the substantial benefits of automation.

Through purpose-built design that is much more than just the robot, a truly collaborative robot must be an inherently safe system of components that delivers the precision, ease of use, speed, flexibility, and return on investment required for the future of small parts assembly.

Collaborative industrial robots, such as ABB Robotics’ YuMi®, feature design attributes that incorporate these human-like capabilities:

Safe: Much like a human arm has a skeleton covered with muscles that provide padding, these new collaborative robots have a lightweight yet rigid magnesium skeleton covered with a floating plastic casing wrapped in soft padding. This arrangement absorbs the force of any unexpected impacts to a very high degree. Like the human arm, they have no pinch points so that sensitive ancillary parts cannot be crushed between two opposing surfaces as the axes open and close.

Compact: The robots have dimensions similar to that of a human, including dual arms featuring seven axes of movement that allow the robot to have greater dexterity and precision inside a compact, human-sized workspace. YuMi, for example, only weighs 38 kg, works off of standard household electrical power found the world over, and is extremely portable and redeployable at will.

Responsive: If the robot senses an unexpected impact, such as a collision with a coworker, it can pause its motion within milliseconds, and the motion can be restarted again as easily as pressing play on a remote control.