Collaborative robots, often called “cobots,” offer opportunities for companies of almost any size to cost-effectively automate processes that were previously out of reach. Cobots are available in a wide range of sizes, payloads, and capabilities but they all share attributes that define the term “collaborative.” The aspect that most people think of first is safety — the ability for cobots to work alongside human workers without bulky, expensive guarding. Cobots include a number of built-in safety mechanisms including rounded edges and softer materials as well as power-and force-limiting technologies that avoid injury and minimize discomfort in case of contact, and sensors that automatically slow or stop the robot arm if a human enters its workspace.

But beyond safety, there are many other important factors that define the concept of collaborative robots. These include flexibility, easy programming, and much lower costs than traditional industrial robots, all of which lead to fast return on investment (ROI). These characteristics make cobots attractive, especially for small and mid-sized enterprises (SMEs) that were historically not suitable prospects for large, complex, and expensive industrial robots.

It's important to remember, however, that a collaborative application is more than just a cobot. John Santagate, Research Director for Commercial Service Robotics at IDC, said, “Innovation has occurred with regard to robotic arms over the past several years, delivering robots that are precise, powerful, and collaborative. However, the robot does not complete any tasks without end-of-arm tooling. The innovation that is occurring in the field of end effectors is the next frontier for collaborative robotic innovation. As collaborative robotic arms move towards commoditization, the innovation occurring around the end-of-arm tooling will enable organizations to deploy robotic technology in new ways.”

Importance of End-of-Arm Tooling on Four Key Collaborative Benefits

Innovative end-of-arm tooling (EoAT) such as grippers, sensors, and tool changers has become a critical aspect of any collaborative application, making it accessible and profitable for all sizes and types of manufacturers. Tooling has a significant impact on four key collaborative automation benefits. A thoughtful consideration of these provides a guide for choosing appropriate collaborative EoAT for common applications such as machine tending and packaging.

1. Safe Collaboration with Human Workers. Safe interaction between humans and robots is one of the primary advantages of collaborative automation but it's important to note that no matter how cobots are designed and marketed, their use may not be reliable for every application. For example, a cobot arm that is operating a welding torch or moving heavy objects can still present opportunities for injury to people nearby. This is why a risk assessment must always be performed before implementation and why it must consider all of the elements of the application including the EoAT as well as the workpiece itself and the presence of other robots or equipment in the workspace.

Collaborative EoAT is easily programmed directly from the robot's teach pendant with no previous experience.

End-of-arm tools for collaborative automation must be designed with certification in mind for the international standard ISO 10218, which defines safety requirements for robots and robotic devices. For example, grippers that are rated for 10 kg or lower payloads are considered “collaborative” in nature and thoughtful design elements such as rounded edges, soft materials, and force-limiting and sensor technologies also contribute to worker safety. Another standard, IS0/CS 15066:2016, describes how a risk assessment for a collaborative application should be carried out including specific ranges for acceptable force and pressure values on human workers. Collaborative grippers are built with this standard in mind, with appropriate maximum gripping force and available safety shields to minimize the risk of pinch-point injuries.

2. Ease of Use and Programming. Cobots are known for their easy programming that allows even inexperienced users to “teach” a robotic process by simply moving the robot arm to the desired waypoints and using a touchscreen teach pendant to set the required actions. Collaborative EoAT extends this benefit with easy-to-use programming capabilities for the tool that are accessed directly from the robot's teach pendant. This is one way that collaborative EoAT helps maximize production with faster uptime.

A collaborative quick changer allows tool changes in seconds for maximum uptime and productivity.

Other ease-of-use attributes to look for include plug-and-produce EoAT implementation with limited cables and connections to manage. Electric vacuum grippers are an ideal choice for collaborative applications as they eliminate the need to manage air lines or clear space for pumps in smaller production cells. For environments that have implemented both collaborative and light industrial robots, tooling that can be used on both platforms interchangeably makes it easier for employees to learn the tools and move smoothly from one process to the other.

3. Flexibility for Easy Redeployment. The ability to quickly and easily redeploy cobots provides numerous advantages for companies with changeable product lines, seasonal demands, or multiple processes that need to be automated using a single robot that is moved between tasks. Cobots can save multiple programs on the teach pendant and with collaborate EoAT, changing jobs can occur in minutes by simply plugging in the new tool and pulling up the right program on the teach pendant.

Collaborative automation often pays for itself within months, and tooling allows manufacturers to easily extend applications for even greater results.

The addition of a collaborative quick changer allows for fast and easy tool changes for maximum uptime and productivity. Collaborative design elements of the tool changer, such as low weight and height, minimize its impact on the application's payload limits and programming. Rounded edges support safe interaction with human workers and reliable, easy-to-use locking mechanisms allow tool changes within seconds.

Collaborative EoAT can work across multiple production cells and processes.