The demand for collaborative robots (cobots) is steadily mounting across all industries. By taking over the dull, dirty, and dangerous tasks, cobots continue to prove their effectiveness in industrial applications by enabling companies to fill labor gaps caused by the pandemic.
Cobots are versatile and can work side-by-side with people, just like co-workers, on a broad range of tasks. These include material handling, machine tending, assembly, as well as testing and packaging in manufacturing, laboratories, logistics hubs, and small production facilities. They can weld, assemble, package, palletize, pick and place, and conduct quality inspections.
Big manufacturing companies have been receptive to cobots. As factory automation becomes accessible to even the small- and medium-enterprises (SMEs), will the adoption of cobots by SMEs accelerate in near future? What are the key challenges cobots need to overcome before they become ubiquitous? Tech Briefs posed questions to four industry experts about the current trends and future outlook of cobots.
Our roundtable participants include Kristian Hulgard, General Manager Americas at OnRobot, Joe Campbell, Senior Manager of Applications Development and Strategic Marketing at Universal Robots, Gerhard Borho, Member of the Management Board Information Technology and Digitalization at Festo, and Katja Butterweck, ABB Global Product Specialist, Collaborative Robots.
Tech Briefs: What are some of the key trends driving the growth of cobots today?
Kristian Hulgard: The ongoing labor shortage, which is happening across all industries and verticals and in many countries is a major driver for cobot adoption. It’s hard to find people to perform general operative roles, for example, which effects many manufacturing processes. Cobots enable companies to fill these labor gaps, while at the same time boosting the performance of existing staff by taking over the dull, dirty, and dangerous tasks. Cobots have proven their effectiveness in industrial applications over the past decade. A major driver for cobot adoption is the technology’s proven ability to increase productivity and throughput, improve quality and enhance your bottom line. The flexibility of cobot technology is also a major factor driving adoption. With the right tooling, the same cobot could be used for sanding, screw-driving, assembly, machine tending and myriad other applications. Usability is another key driver. You don’t have to be a robot programmer to program a cobot cell, which creates massive possibilities for companies with little or no prior robotics experience.
Joe Campbell: Labor shortages are hitting several sectors, which in turn drives adoption of cobot technologies. To take just one sector, the American Welding Society estimates that there is a current shortfall of 85,000 welders in the United States alone. This is a pattern that is repeated across verticals and regions. The workers simply aren’t there to take on many of the dull, dirty, and dangerous tasks from sanding to palletizing that are critical to a successful manufacturing company.
Gerhard Borho: The world population — and thus the demand for goods — is growing. Factory and logistics halls are increasing. Industrial robotics ensures that we can increase the high production demands of a growing world population through efficient production. Work steps can thus be carried out faster, safer and (more) cost-efficiently. More and more people are working in industrial production. They often lift heavy loads and/or make monotonous movements for hours on end. Due to demographic change, for many workers this means decades of exhausting or unhealthy work. Industrial robotics, especially collaborative robotics, makes many people’s working lives easier by relieving them of strenuous work or even taking it over completely. The know-how of the employees can be used in other, more meaningful ways.
Katja Butterweck: The key trends in the growth of collaborative robots are flexibility and ease of use. Cobots from the leading robot OEMs remove complexity from operations with precision and repeatability, and, with their simple design and engineering, can be integrated into existing production lines quickly and easily. As far as flexibility goes, one of the key elements in the successful implementation of collaborative robots is their approachable, sleek, compact, and lightweight design, allowing them to be easily moved between locations so they can be used when and where necessary, to support short-term process changes, or to automate a task while an employee is off sick or on holiday.
Tech Briefs: Big manufacturing companies have been receptive to this technology. As factory automation becomes accessible to even the small manufacturing enterprises, do you think adoption of cobots by SMEs will accelerate in near future?
Kristian Hulgard: Undoubtedly. In fact, acceleration of automation adoption among SMEs is one of OnRobot’s primary goals. By designing hardware and software that eliminates complexity, OnRobot aims to empower SMEs to adopt automation — often for the first time and with no prior robotics experience. By taking the fussiness out of automation, adoption becomes a less daunting process, encouraging SMEs to incorporate automation in their workshops.
Joe Campbell: Our founders envisioned a world in which SMEs could enjoy the benefits of industrial automation, without the customary cost and complexity attached. That vision remains central to Universal Robots’ mission today. The arrival of cobots has broken down traditional barriers to adoption and inspired thousands of SMEs to deploy automation for the first time. We want people to work with robots, not like robots. Adoption of cobots by SMEs is on an upward trend and has been for several years. Fast ROI and a lower Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) compared to traditional automation, are additional factors driving interest among SMEs. UR customers typically see ROI within 12-18 Septembers. In many cases, depending on the application, it’s even quicker than that. And with cobots being easy to program and deploy, eliminating the need to hire expensive robot programmers, TCO is vastly reduced compared to alternative industrial robot solutions.
Gerhard Borho: For large corporations, robot-based solutions are now standard equipment in large production halls. In medium-sized companies, however, they have by no means arrived across the board. Many still shy away from this technological leap. The reasons are different: some fear high investments — with comparatively little added value due to too small fields of application and possibilities. In some cases, however, the inhibitions also lie on the human side: Many associate highly complex technical systems with it and see hurdles in terms of new competence requirements. Festo makes collaborative robotics intuitively controllable, flexibly applicable and — above all — financially affordable and thus economically worthwhile even in smaller companies. Cobots are particularly attractive for SMEs when they can pragmatically and quickly take on a new task and are not only intended for permanent use. The price is a central aspect for establishing cobots in SMEs in large numbers. It is a decision criterion when it comes to trying out the added value simply and without great financial risk.
Katja Butterweck: Yes, SMEs are ripe for significant growth in the installation of cobots due to production and material cost pressures, labor shortages, and increasing need for flexibility. ABB is currently witnessing a growing demand for automation not only in large companies in industries like automotive and electronics, where robotics are already in place, but also in SMEs in new segments like healthcare, consumer goods, logistics and retail, which currently have a low level of robotic automation. No robot can replace a person. But often, people are forced into robotic jobs — dull, dangerous, or repetitive tasks. The increasing capability, autonomy, and intelligence of collaborative robots to handle such tasks can free employees up for more fulfilling work and contribute toward a happier, safer, and healthier society.
Tech Briefs: Interacting with humans in a shared workspace comes with challenges of safety. Are robot manufacturers installing more safety features while designing cobots?
Kristian Hulgard: From the outset, cobots have been designed to operate safely close to humans, so safety has always been a feature of the technology. This is not to say that traditional industrial automation is unsafe, but it typically requires extensive fencing and guarding to protect human workers. In contrast, following a risk assessment, cobots can be deployed without all that fencing and guarding.
Joe Campbell: Safety is central to the cobot concept which includes the freedom, following a risk assessment, to deploy cobots in close proximity to human workers without all the safety fencing and guarding traditional industrial robots require. To make this possible, Universal Robots has incorporated an extensive range of safety features into our cobots. The e-Series, for example, has 17 safety features built in and are certified by TÜV Nord and in compliance with the EN ISO 13849-1 and EN ISO 10218-1 safety standards. While cobots provide levels of safety beyond that of any other industrial robot, it’s important to counter the misconception that cobots are inherently safe. For any machine to be inherently safe, it means that there is no risk of injury in all situations. No such machine exists. Cobots are incomplete machines. As a standalone product your cobot has no end-effector (gripper or other peripheral), and there is no way to know how it will be used and what it will do. Only the application of a cobot can be judged to be safe or not and this is determined by performing a simple risk assessment of the cobot application in accordance with ISO/TS 15066 before deployment.
Gerhard Borho: The safety requirements for collaboration are defined. Our pneumatic robot meets these standards and is also inherently more compliant and softer because of the technology. We owe this to the advantages of pneumatic drive technology, which, for example, does not require any gears at all compared to electric drive solutions. In case of a collision, a “hard stop” is not always good: e.g. jammed condition. Then it is important to push the cobot aside again. This can be realized pneumatically very easily and flexibly in balancer mode.
Katja Butterweck: For a robot to be considered collaborative, it must have the necessary safety functions which prevent injury to a human operator. This means factoring in the robot’s speed, the combined mass of the robot, its payload, and the ability of the robot to quickly come to a halt. Built-in safety features, therefore, are the primary point of differentiation between collaborative robots and standard industrial robots. Leading collaborative robots incorporate a range of features that allow it to be used directly alongside human workers without the space and expense associated with physical barriers or fences. Enabling a robot and human to continuously share the same workspace and cooperate on the same tasks, without jeopardizing speed and safety, allows for maximum flexibility and efficiency. ABB’s GoFa cobot, for example, features intelligent torque and position sensors in each of its six joints to offer superior power and force limiting performance. These joints eliminate the risk of injury to human workers by sensing any unexpected contact between the cobot’s arm and a human to bring the robot arm to a stop within milliseconds.
Tech Briefs: How will advancement in technologies such as additive manufacturing and artificial intelligence impact the design and development of cobots?
Kristian Hulgard: Additive manufacturing offers exciting possibilities when it comes to customizing automation and testing prototypes on the shopfloor. OnRobot Partner EMI, for example, designs and builds in-stock and custom solutions for OnRobot products, from 3D-printed vacuum tools to machined fingers for handling grippers. The impact is immediate – greater flexibility and faster deployment times for custom applications. Artificial intelligence is another exciting prospect. Software is the brains of any robot and if robots can learn from experience and then share that information with other robots worldwide, it’s easy to imagine a world in which your automation learns new skills on an ongoing basis.
Joe Campbell: Additive manufacturing has great potential in terms of customization of end-effectors and other tooling. Moreover, 3D printing allows rapid prototyping of cobot tooling. The extent to which this will impact on the design of cobots themselves remains to be seen. Many of our UR+ partners incorporate AI features into applications such as bin-picking solutions, but we expect to see more widespread use of AI in the years ahead.
Gerhard Borho: Additive manufacturing and artificial intelligence are becoming more and more important and bring with them new requirements that impact the design and development of cobots. Traditional development and production processes will change, and we will see increasing flexibility. For cobots, this means that they will also have to adapt to the new challenges. Development platforms help to master the growing complexity and offer possibilities for modular development. In particular, the increasing number of intelligent solutions and products, inevitably brings with it an increasing software share. The short development cycles in the software require even more a detached development of the software and mechanics.
Katja Butterweck: Artificial intelligence, especially, will allow the realization of a lot more advanced applications with cobots. AI allows robots to see, reason, and act in the world around them, completing tasks too complex and varied for traditional programmed robots. AI software enables robots to engage in reinforcement learning: adapting to new tasks on their own through trial and error and therefore constantly broadening the range of objects they can pick. With collaborative robots, in addition to AI, programming simplicity is one of the leading technological advancements. For example, end users can easily program GoFa via lead-through programming and ABB’s new Wizard easy programming software. Based on simple graphical blocks, Wizard makes it easy for non-specialists to automate their applications. The blocks represent actions such as ‘move to location’, ‘pick up an object’, and ‘repeat task’, making it easy and intuitive to build a series of simple processes for the robot to perform.
Tech Briefs: What are the key challenges cobots need to overcome before they become ubiquitous?
Kristian Hulgard: Cobots are not suited to every type of application. For example, if you need to manufacture millions of the same part in a Low Mix/ High Volume environment or if you need to lift extremely heavy items such as aircraft fuselages, then it’s possible that traditional automation would be a better fit. Cobots are best suited to High Mix/Low Volume manufacturing processes and lighter payloads. In this sense, cobots will never be ubiquitous.
Joe Campbell: Given that cobots are best suited to High Mix/Low Volume production, and typically handle smaller payloads than traditional industrial robots, it’s unlikely that cobots will ever be ubiquitous. Some applications require robots that can handle massive payloads in excess of 100 lbs and beyond. While payloads are increasing all the time — the recently launched UR20 can handle payloads up to 20 kg (44.1 lbs), for example — and we are continually improving the speed and accuracy of our cobots, for some applications, traditional industrial robots will remain the better choice. What we are also seeing is that traditional industrial automation builders are incorporating aspects of collaborative robotics, enhanced safety features and improved user interfaces, for example, into their designs. In effect, the line between collaborative and industrial robotics is starting to blur, but the differences remain stark in terms of affordability, speed of ROI, and overall usability.
Gerhard Borho: In order to establish collaborative robotics on a broad scale, two aspects are indispensable: flexibility and simplicity. Our customers should “experience” directly — in their production environments — how uncomplicated, intuitive, and efficiency-increasing our product is. Ease of use is the prerequisite for Cobots to be accepted in practice by employees, especially by customers who have not yet come into contact with them.
Katja Butterweck: Many companies, especially SMEs, are reluctant to implement cobots, as they regard them as too expensive and too complicated to handle. Much progress has been made by leading collaborative robot OEMs to address these issues. Simplicity is key to unlocking automation for SMEs. The recent progress in making cobots easy to use has enabled more SMEs to benefit from cobot automation. Smaller end users can start working with cobots straight out of the box — without prior programming experience or specialized training. When it comes to the costs for a cobot, the key question is about the return of investment. Customers tell us about unusually short returns on investment. It is not unusual to hear that an SME has achieved an ROI in 12 months or less.