As manufacturing facilities become more automated, robots are playing a larger role. And while collaborative robots and other robotic systems may help human workers, there are many questions still to be answered about cost, safety, and other factors. Motion Design posed some of those questions to a panel of robotics industry leaders.
Our executive panel consists of Dr. Frank Melzer, Chief Technology Officer at Festo SE; Scott Summerville, President & CEO of Mitsubishi Electric Automation; Mark Sadie, Vice President of Marketing at Omron Automation Americas; Enrico Krog Iversen, CEO of OnRobot; and Jim Lawton, Vice President of Product Management and Marketing at Universal Robots.
Motion Design: Collaborative robots originally were developed to help workers perform assembly tasks; today, they have many more applications. While many see cobots as benevolent assistants to humans, they present inherent dangers. How have cobots been improved and what aspects of them still present barriers to their full potential?
Dr. Frank Melzer: Collaborative robots originally were developed to help workers perform assembly tasks; today, they have many more applications. Features like safe-limited speed, force limitation, and the possibility to define safe workspaces are coming with almost every cobot today. ISO/TS 15066 and the need to specify each individual application according to safety aspects are the limiting factors so far in terms of barriers to a broader adoption of cobots.
Jim Lawton: Cobots aren’t just for assembly tasks and have proven themselves in a wide range of applications. Traditional robots have a large footprint. In contrast, cobots are low-cost, easy to deploy, have a small footprint, and are safe to operate in close proximity to human workers. For any machine to be inherently safe, it means that there is no risk of injury in all situations. This does not exist. Even a tiny robot with a very small payload could hold a hypodermic needle with a deadly poison or virus, presenting the risk of harm to a person due to the application but not the robot. Only the application of a cobot can be judged to be safe or not.
Enrico Krog Iversen: Collaborative robots have been improving at a phenomenal rate, payloads have increased, repeatability has improved, and a huge ecosystem of third-party developers of components and tools for cobots has emerged. All these improvements, including the ability to handle bigger payloads, have been achieved without sacrificing the safety features that make it possible for cobots to be deployed in close proximity to human workers.
Scott Summerville: Like all robots, cobots have undergone improvements and refinements since their introduction. Barriers to introducing cobots can include their speed of operation and repeatability. Cobots need to move at a reduced speed when in close proximity to humans and the repeatability of many cobots tends to be less than that of standard industrial robots, which also limits their possible usage. Systems featuring cobots are frequently designed by inexperienced robot users. Many of the unsuccessful cobot installations are not due to the limitations of the cobot but rather the inexperience of the system architect.
Mark Sadie: Collaborative robots currently offer safety with respect to the force and speed of the robotic arm itself, allowing humans to work in harmony with machines in close proximity. Opportunities exist for cobots to understand the safety required for the task the arm is performing and tools it is using. Areas for improvement include safety-rated end-of-arm tooling like grippers.
Motion Design: How has the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) impacted how “smart” robots can be, and how robots connect with each other and their operators?
Summerville: Robots have always been able to communicate with each other, operators, and external devices, so this connectivity is not anything new. The IIoT allows this communication to be faster and easier to set up; however, most manufacturers do not want their data communicated via the Internet. If the definition of IIoT is more about data, host systems within the factory are now being programmed to use this data to make meaningful decisions and to alert operators of potential problems before production is impacted. This need has allowed robot manufacturers to justify the cost associated with developing additional data analytics for applications such as preventative maintenance.
Sadie: The IIoT has allowed robots to extend a primary value they bring in flexible automation. Smart robots can integrate with factory floor systems and enterprise IT systems as well as automation order changes, product changes, tooling changes, and product configurations. Integrated robotic vision has also extended this ability in making the robot smarter for the purpose of maintaining precise location of machines, tooling, and parts as these may move around from job to job.
Melzer: Connected robots are perhaps the most relevant development in overcoming the limitations posed by specifications in ISO/TS 15066. Connected wearables, for example, may help to exchange information between cobots and operators; wearables may detect the intention for the next operator movement more conveniently and perhaps as accurately or more accurately than any external laser scanner or camera system.
Lawton: The IIoT brings unprecedented levels of granularity to automation deployments, enabling users to gain detailed insight into the performance of their robots. For example, remote monitoring edge devices enable you to monitor and program your cobots remotely, which is especially valuable given the emergence of COVID-19 and the rash of work-from-home directives, social distancing regulations, and absenteeism issues that have followed.
Motion Design: Has cost reached a point where robotics can be used by more small- and mid-sized manufacturers?
Melzer: Traditional robotics has been supported mainly by the automotive industry, so the performance of these devices was adapted to the needs of transportation manufacturers. Envisioning smaller and more lightweight robotics, designers realized that cobots could be used for millions of assembly tasks now being carried out by humans. Sales of cobots for assembly brought down the costs of these robots to a level where small- and mid-sized manufacturers started to apply them. In addition to cost reduction, ease-of-use drives the adoption of cobots for small- to mid-sized companies.
Sadie: Cost has absolutely reached a point where small- and mid-sized companies can and should invest. In the past, the typical high-speed robotics automation cell could easily cost well into six-figure ranges and more. Currently, collaborative robotic automation cells typically cost substantially less, offering a great return on investment for the user. Collaborative mobile robots can be moved to different applications and jobs as needed within the factory, adding to their value in flexible manufacturing.
Summerville: Yes, the cost of purchasing a robot has come down as the capabilities of the robots and unit volume have increased. This has had a positive impact on ROI calculations. Robots are also more durable than at any point in the past, further impacting ROI in a positive way. Cobots typically have icon-driven programming environments that are very easy for new users to understand, resulting in shorter build times and faster re-programming should the cobot be moved into a different area of the manufacturing process. Also, there is less safety equipment needed with cobots, driving down the cost and complexity of the work cell (such as fences, light curtains, and similar devices).
Lawton: In addition to offering a low cost of entry, collaborative robots are easy to program, even by people with little or no prior robotics experience. This further reduces the costs of cobot adoption, because it eliminates the need to bring robot experts in every time you need to reprogram your cobot.
Iversen: It has never been easier for small- and mid-sized manufacturers to adopt automation quickly and cheaply. A recent report from the International Federation of Robotics revealed that cobot installations grew by 11% in 2019. We believe that low cost of entry and ease of use are two factors driving this stunning growth.
Motion Design: There have been a number of advances in end effectors, providing robots with greater dexterity and flexibility; however, many gripping and grasping tools still do not have universal connectivity. What needs to be done to ensure that any end effector can connect to any robot?
Iversen: Ensuring that “any end effector can connect to any robot” is a big ask, especially when you consider that new robots and end effectors are coming on the market every year, some of which will inevitably be locked into proprietary software, hardware, and communication interfaces.
Sadie: Just like in other automation products, end effector technology will need to advance in order to support automation networks and provide a file to be uploaded into the robot’s controller for universal interface controls. Today, many end effector products have customer drivers and software integration into specific robots. These have special advantages that we do not want to lose in the pursuit of universal connectivity.
Melzer: The further success of cobots depends primarily on the flexibility of the end-of-arm tools (EOATs); this must be a priority of national and international standardization committees. There is no doubt: heading for a standardized EOAT interface is a seductive prospect. But a universal interface must accommodate more than a few gripping functions. It is this complexity that makes standardization an ambitious and difficult goal to achieve.
Summerville: The lack of common mechanical and control interfaces has always held back the implementation of robots and increased the cost of total solutions. I don’t see robot manufacturers agreeing on a common set of interfaces anytime soon; however, robot manufacturers are obviously interested in having as many mechanical interface companies adapt products to their robots. This will likely be the path for the foreseeable future when it comes to compatibility.
Lawton: Due to the enormous variety of robots, end effectors, and the different hardware and software interfaces used by different brands, it’s unlikely that we will ever have a situation where “any end effector can connect to any robot,” at least in the short term.
Motion Design: With COVID-19, autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) have become useful in hospital settings and for food delivery, providing a way to transport items in a socially distanced manner. What other applications do you see for mobile robots in the near future?
Sadie: It’s exciting to see the creative solutions that a post-COVID environment requires. The possibilities are endless for future applications and combining the autonomous mobile technology with collaborative robots further increases the potential in many marketplaces including manufacturing, security, hospitality, logistics, and commercial applications.
Summerville: As the capabilities of AMRs have risen, systems that integrate robots and AMRs are slowly becoming more cost-effective and easier to implement. The use of fixed robots has also increased due to the pandemic, specifically to socially distance workers, assemblers, packers, and inspectors in manufacturing facilities, particularly in the food industry as well as electronics, medical devices, and general manufacturing.
Melzer: Service robotics is definitely a field where the experiences of the pandemic have stimulated awareness that new cobot capabilities are needed and will be welcomed by a number of applications. Personal care, intralogistics, and warehousing are notable for their need of AMRs.
Lawton: COVID-19 has created a surge of interest in automation in general but this is especially true of collaborative robots and mobile robot platforms. When these platforms are combined to create a mobile cobot, the potential applications of both technologies rise exponentially. We've seen mobile cobots deployed for disinfection applications in hospitals and even for COVID-19 testing applications.