The following article is a guest blog post from technical writer Megan R Nichols . Nichols frequently discusses automation technology for sites like The Automation Blog, Robotics Business Review, and her own blog, Schooled By Science . Keep up with Megan by following her on Twitter .

Traditional Robots in Manufacturing

We've been dreaming about robots taking over the menial tasks that we take for granted for decades, but it wasn't until the 1950s that the idea first began to become a reality.

The FAMULUS robot
The FAMULUS robot

Engineers Joseph Engelberger and George Devol created the world's first commercial robot in 1956. The same year, Keller und Knappich Augsburg (KUKA) in Germany built the first automatic welding system  — initially for appliances and then for Volkswagen vehicles.

We saw the first robot with electro-mechanically driven axes in 1973, also from KUKA. This robot, named FAMULUS, had six axes designed to mimic the motion and mechanics of a human arm. Since their inception, robotic arms have worked in assembly and welding in manufacturing, automotive, and many other industries in the last few decades.

These machines have all had one major thing in common — they've always been separate from human workers so that they can accomplish their jobs safely. Their massive moving parts can cause injury or death, so factory workers had to stay clear while the machines were running, and shut them off if they needed to get close.

Today, these massive manufacturing bots have evolved into something new — collaborative robots.

A Kuka Robotics technology works on a vehicle
A Kuka Robotics technology works on a vehicle.

What Is a Collaborative Robot?

Collaborative robots, or cobots, are a new incarnation of manufacturing bot designed to work alongside humans rather than in their own space. They're just as effective as their larger counterparts — sometimes more so — with the added benefit of sharing workspaces  with humans. This characteristic is handy, especially in factories that might have limited floor space, because they don't need to have dedicated bubbles to keep everyone safe.

Cobots are not necessarily autonomous, which means human operators are still necessary, and they require some safety precautions.

Instead of relying on a programmer to tell them what to do, cobots are often taught by example. An operator physically controls the bot’s movements, running it through its necessary tasks. The cobot can then remember which tasks it needs to complete and perform them again and again with perfect recall and execution. The video below demonstrates cobot training procedures.

However, cobots are smaller, safer, and more effective in different ways.

What are Cobot Manufacturing applications?

Cobots can make an appearance anywhere businesses use robots for assembly and manufacturing. Currently, there are roughly 74 robots per 10,000 employees  around the globe, and experts expect the industry to grow by 13% in the next year. While cobots will play a massive role in manufacturing in the years to come, this technology is still relatively young.

The machines perform all sorts of high-precision tasks. Humans might be capable of accomplishing the same jobs, but by delegating these repetitive actions to cobots, we can free up human workers for more essential duties. Currently, you can find cobots in every industry from metal fabrication and packaging to CNC machining, molding, testing, and quality control inspections, to name a few.

Cobots are valuable for applications where human workers may be injured. In some instances, these machines take over when tasks are not ergonomic, and repetitive motion could hurt a human worker. One such cobot, named Usehi, works at a German industrial control firm  named Festo Scharnhausen.

This cobot is unique in that it has a variety of sensors housed beneath a soft skin. If it detects one of its human coworkers in close proximity, it slows down. If one of its colleagues touches Usehi's arm, the cobot shuts down altogether to ensure workplace safety.

a Festo Scharnhausen employee interacts with a flexible cobot
At German industrial control firm Festo Scharnhausen employees cooperate in safe interaction with a flexible robot, which takes over assembly tasks that are ergonomically disadvantageous. (Image Credit: Festo)

How Collaborative Are Cobots?

Can you expect to be working alongside a collaborative robot in the not-too-distant future? It's more likely than you might think. In addition to manufacturing, you might see cobots showing up in entry-level positions  like food service and bartending. Companies could use them to pick plants — or to serve as surgical assistants to keep patients healthy.

Depending on where you look, a day alongside a cobot could be something like this:

  • You'll boot up your cobot when you arrive at the office for the day. You'll set it to its assigned task and monitor the robot throughout the day.
  • You can carry on with more meaningful and less repetitive tasks, occasionally checking in on your cobot to ensure that it doesn't need any updates to its programming or suppliers.
  • At the end of the day, if there isn't another shift after yours, you'll shut down your collaborative robot and head home for the night.

Cobots aren't going to replace human workers. Instead, they're going to work alongside us, carrying out repetitive tasks which will free employees up for other assignments — whether that means following more creative pursuits or focusing on activities that cobots currently aren't capable of.

Robotic arms package materials in a factory setting
Robotic arms package materials in a factory setting.

How Do Collaborative Robots and Traditional Robots Compare?

When it comes right down to it, which is the better choice  — cobots or traditional robots? That depends on your desires and the needs of your company. Traditional robots might be more dangerous and require more space, but they're built for sheer power and speed, while cobots are suited for slower, specialized work. Traditional robots handle large projects and exist in nearly every industry, while cobots are better for specific projects.

From tending 3D printers to picking warehouse orders and even manufacturing medical devices, cobots are starting to set themselves apart. This is thanks to improvements in vision technology , including LIDAR and other pathfinding techniques, that make it easier for the cobot to see what is going on around it.

Cobots are less expensive and easier to install than traditional robotic equipment. They're also smaller, taking up less floor space. You can put these machines in nearly any area because they don't need the same sort of safety bubble that traditional robots require.

Some cobots, like Usehi mentioned above, use sensors to detect the presence of human coworkers. Others may be programmed to work in their own space, even if that area is alongside a human colleague. This factor doesn't mean that safety  is no longer an issue. Crewmembers that work next to bots still need to be trained in proper procedures.

Just because a cobot is programmed to stop or draw back if it senses a human worker in its path doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for workers to put themselves in harm's way. If a cobot needs freedom of movement to complete its task, employees will need instruction on where they’re allowed to work and travel, including colorful and clearly marked paths. This keeps human workers out of the way of the bot and makes safety a priority for all.

There is no right or wrong answer here. Traditional robotics will be more appropriate for some applications, and cobots will work better for others. The type you choose will be entirely up to you.

The Future of Cobots in Manufacturing

Cobots may never fully replace traditional robots for large-scale manufacturing projects that require speed and power. The robots, however, will be the perfect tools to take over the repetitive entry-level tasks that are a part of many industries. If you design a robot that can handle these tasks, your skilled workers can spend their energy on other, more crucial tasks.

Megan Ray Nichols

Maybe in the future, we'll replace the majority of our workforce with robots, allowing us to pursue creative endeavors or other hobbies. For now, however, the best we can hope for is smaller robots that we can work alongside.

Megan R Nichols  is a technical writer who frequently discussing automation technology for sites like The Automation Blog and Robotics Business Review. She also enjoys writing easy to read tech article on her blog, Schooled By Science . Keep up with Megan by following her on Twitter .