A cobot is about to become your co-worker

Collaborative robots are filling in the blanks on the plant floor.

By Stan Prutz, QDS Systems August 13, 2018

As artificial intelligence (AI) advances, opportunities abound for today’s plant to become smarter, safer, faster, and better. AI can be harnessed in the manufacturing space through collaborative robots (cobots) by guiding their actions with a visioning camera system with machine learning algorithms.

This process is revolutionizing manufacturing as we know it today, and facility and manufacturing leaders are now faced with not only the decision to enlist cobots, but also how to seamlessly integrate cobots with humans. The technology has been refined and is ready for the factory floor, with well over 10,000 installed industrial applications today and a projected market growth rate of 10 times over the next five years.

The case for cobots

1. Optimization

Cobots significantly optimize the manufacturing process. They can generate process data that AI analysis uses to identify ways to streamline methods, working double duty by not only completing a task, but by also gathering useful intel on how to improve that task. They also can improve product consistency, therefore allowing a manufacturer to develop higher quality products at a lower cost. If a manufacturer can use a cobot to replace an entry-level person doing hazardous and dirty tasks, they can save the company several hundreds of thousands of dollars over a five-year period.

2. Flexibility

Cobots are light and easy to setup, can serve in several roles, and are redeployable as manufacturing needs change.

3. Easy integration

Collaborative robotic software is groundbreaking compared to traditional robotic software, making the systems vastly easier to learn, setup, and deploy. Unlike traditional robots, the learning curve and risk to deploy is low; the heaviest "lift" for manufacturers is identifying a first target application in the facility to learn how the technology can benefit operations. Collaborative robotic systems integrators can partner with manufacturers to help them identify and deploy target applications.

4. Affordability

Today there are options for a plant to both lease and rent cobots. As cobots become an alternative or, in many cases, supplemental solution to hiring additional staff, the payment process can be set up similarly-with a monthly lease payment going towards the cobot. Renting is also an option for manufacturers looking to demonstrate a proof of a concept or to provide a solution for a short-term need. Depending on the need, cobots are a manageable expense for many plants.

Humans and cobots together

Cobots are designed to work with humans to produce or create a product, and they should be viewed as a tool to improve the manufacturing process. Work cells can be designed for a human and a cobot to work collaboratively, transferring portions of the work that a robot is better suited to, typically making employees more productive, engaged, and thus improving their job satisfaction. It is important to educate employees on the cobots’ role and form a mutual understanding that, if embraced, the cobots will enhance workflow.

Cobots are typically built with force-sensing joints and safety electronics, allowing them to be placed safely side-by-side with human employees, forgoing the safety cages and light curtains required to fence traditional robots from humans. This allows manufacturing engineering new ways of designing work cells on production lines, with human and cobots side by side.

A metaphor for the future

Remember the flip phone era? When smartphones were introduced, many flip phone users said, "Why do I need a smartphone when my flip phone does everything I need?" People really didn’t appreciate a smartphone until they spent some time with one and redefined their "needs" —from GPS tracking to cloud computing-and then it became indispensable. It’s now hard to imagine a world without smartphones. Manufacturers who have deployed collaborative robotic technology are reporting a similar epiphany.

Stan Prutz, president and CEO of QDS Systems, is a collaborative robotic systems integrator with more than 25 years in process control and drive system integration.