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Industry 4.0: Rise of the cobots?

8 minutes | 29 Oct 2018

Business man shaking humanoid cobot hand

From stacking boxes, painting, welding and quality control, cobots are on the rise. But what are the real benefits and how are they impacting on their human co-workers?

Safely ensconced behind barriers, industrial robots were historically the preserve of the dull, dirty and dangerous tasks, far removed from the activities of the more delicate human operatives. But the advent of Industry 4.0 (I4.0) technologies (and the smart factory) is prompting their move out of the manufacturing shadows, where cobots are now taking their place alongside their human counterparts.

According to market research report Collaborative Robots Market, the cobot market is expected to be worth $4.28 billion by 2023, growing at a CAGR of 56.94% between 2017 and 2023. This surge in growth is attributed to the high ROI rates and low price of cobots, leading to a growing attraction from SMEs and increasing investments in automation by industries to support their I4.0 evolution. So what exactly are cobots, how are they being deployed and what are their benefits?

Man controlling cobot with personal device

What is a cobot?

It’s a collaborative robot. Whereas a traditional industrial robot is designed to complete a specific pre-defined task within a physical workspace, a cobot is designed from the outset to physically interact and collaborate, safely, with humans in a shared workspace. To their expensive, inflexible and complex robot cousins, cobots are lightweight, compact and simple to operate; and they won’t rip your arm off if you get too close.

With the implementation of transformational I4.0 technologies, the development and usage of cobots are evolving fast so that they are becoming tougher, smarter

and easier to deploy and train across a broad range of facilities in manufacturing, warehousing, logistics and more. Their force-limiting sensors mean there’s no need for protective guards and they’re also simple to programme and much cheaper to deploy.

As such, cobots embody Industry 4.0 concepts of interoperability, information transparency, technical assistance and decentralised decisions. Their on-board computers facilitate their link-up to the Internet of Things (IoT) in any factory environment.

Their ability to capture data to then pass on to other systems for analysis, modelling or maintenance means they can promote information transparency, as well as being able to carry out decentralised decisions. That’s all before you consider their core remit of providing technical assistance to humans, carrying out tasks that are either too tiring or dangerous for their human co-workers. So, how are cobots making in-roads into a company near you and what are the benefits?

“The cobot market is expected to be worth $4.28 billion by 2023

Airbus Air-cobot visual inspection robot on display at Singapore Airshow February 16, 2016 in Singapore.
Editorial credit: Jordan Tan / Shutterstock.com

They’re smart

A cobot is smarter than an industrial robot, which is down to their sensors, smart systems and tech. All of them are able to link up to the IoT and to their task-specific systems, such as warehouse management.

These technologies make cobots more people- and context-aware, ensuring they are safe and accurate to work around. British online supermarket Ocado, for example, uses 4G-enabled robots in its automated warehouses and is currently working to develop a humanoid robot that can assist its in-house technicians with tricky maintenance jobs.

Other retailers around the world are getting in on the act. The well-known American hardware store Lowe’s has developed its own robot, the LoweBot. Its role is to handle multiple simple tasks at 11 of its stores across the San Francisco Bay area. The multilingual bots help customers locate products and can keep tabs on inventory levels by scanning aisles for what products are in and out of stock.

They’re easy to use

While they might not all have a smiley face for humans to engage with, cobots are intuitive to operate, with a tablet or similar tailored device or display. The flipside of this is that it frees up elements of your human workforce to work on more specialised tasks, rather than have their time taken up with, say, order picking.

This also alleviates the problems encountered by some businesses in employee retention and where production jobs might be monotonous or dangerous, or just temporary due to the seasonality of customer demand.

Such jobs can be carried out by cobots, helping to avoid injury or boredom, as well as leaving the company free to focus on recruiting human workers for more advanced work in cognitive areas that leverage technology on the factory floor. Chinese company Foxconn makes Apple, Samsung and Microsoft devices and has replaced some 60,000 human workers with robots in a bid to automate all roles that involve monotonous, repetitive tasks.

Easier ergonomics

At German industrial control company Festo Scharnhausen, human operatives work alongside flexible robots that undertake assembly tasks that are ergonomically disadvantageous. These ‘soft-skin’ cobots physically interact closely with humans in a shared workspace.

Beneath a soft skin, the robotic arm is fitted with sophisticated sensors that allow the cobot to react quickly to the proximity of a human co-worker, which negates the need for a protective guard. And if the human worker gets too close? The arm automatically shuts down.
“Using cobots… has led to a 50% increase in productivity, with zero job losses”

Improved productivity

Paradigm Electronics is a Canadian electronics manufacturer that’s been using cobots to undertake precise polishing and buffing tasks on its loudspeakers, working alongside human co-workers who carry out quality checking and final finish.

Using cobots in this way has led to a 50% increase in productivity for the company, with zero job losses. Instead, the employees who previously carried out these tasks are now promoted from machine operators to robot programmers.

Likewise, Spanish fashion retailer Zara's parent company Inditex operates 14 automated factories across Spain staffed by cobots carrying out numerous tasks from cutting patterns to dying fabric. The machines work so fast that Zara can move a product from design stage to sales floor in just 10 days.

Precision accuracy

Ford was one of the first car makers to implement an integrated approach to humans and robots working closely together on its assembly lines.

The company uses cobots developed by German robot manufacturer KUK Roboter GmbH to work alongside humans in order to fit shock absorbers to its Fiesta range, a task that requires pinpoint accuracy, dexterity and strength. Equipped with high-tech sensors, the cobots cease activities immediately if they detect anything in their way, ensuring human safety at all times.

Collaboration advantage

So where efficient working is concerned, it appears that man and machine complement each other perfectly.

The lower prices, simple programming and versatility of cobots will allow more companies to join the I4.0 revolution. But if the division of labour along robot lines strikes fear into the heart of human factory workers, fear not; while the cobot may follow instructions and generate data to precision, their big-brained human co-worker will always outstrip the machine where insight, judgement and creativity are concerned, freeing up human capital for more sophisticated, productive roles.