How manufacturers can make the most of cobots
July 14, 2021
The manufacturing sector is hugely benefiting from the field of robotics, and in particular from the use of collaborative robots (cobots) in factory settings. Today, more and more manufacturers are exploring how cobots can revolutionize their organization’s operations by boosting efficiency. However, too many manufacturers are merely investing in cobots and hoping for automatic returns-on-investment, with often mixed results. Instead, manufacturers must carefully evaluate where cobots will make the biggest impact in operations and choose these areas only. What should executives consider before they make those investments?
By Antoine Martin and Balazs Daniel, Accenture
Cobots are designed to operate safely alongside human workers and enable human-robot collaboration. Cobots, just like traditional industrial robots, consist of a mechanical arm that can be programmed to perform various tasks in the factory setting such as material handling, assembly, process tasks, quality inspection and packaging. This allows its human co-worker to focus on other tasks that require greater dexterity and cognitive abilities than the cobot which focuses on repetitive tasks.
What differentiates cobots from regular robots is their working in very close contact with human workers, by leveraging sensors and special software algorithms. Cobots automatically stop interference with obstacles (objects or humans alike) and the forces exerted during a collision are small enough not to cause damage or injuries.
Cobots are highly suitable for manufacturing operations, but too many manufacturers are investing in cobots without a comprehensive plan of action. As with any other intelligent technology, it is important to think about how cobots can best benefit operations. Targeting the wrong cobots for operational needs is leading to a lack of expected ROI—cobots, despite being highly versatile, are coming with strict specifications and limitations which must be understood and respected. The key to success is to carefully analyze operations and find where it is best to introduce cobots to work alongside human employees.
Since the first cobot launched in 2008, this form of robotics has become increasingly popular among manufacturers. This is understandably due to cobots’ ability to help human workers improve efficiency and productivity by simplifying many daily tasks, while not needing the rigid and laborious setup of industrial robots.
In regards to market growth, cobots have been one of the most impressive sectors of the robotics industry: the International Federation of Robotics is estimating their growth at an annual rate of 40% and Interact Analysis forecasts that annual cobot revenues will reach $1.94 billion in 2028, accounting for 15.7% of the total robot market.
Cobots are smaller, and therefore more mobile than traditional industrial robots.
It’s easy to see why so many manufacturers are investing in cobots today. These machines can be “trained” to perform repetitive tasks and are far less likely to make mistakes when compared to their human co-workers. Cobots are also relatively easy to use with training and can typically be set up in a short amount of time. Another draw for manufacturers is the fact that cobots are smaller, and therefore more mobile than traditional industrial robots.
A large range of cobot models can be quickly and easily wheeled from one factory station to another. Cobots are also usually flexible in terms of software and can be reprogrammed to perform various tasks instead of one single task. And cobots are attractive because their inherently safe design reduces the need for sometimes expensive safety accessories thus saving costs and factory floor space as well. With those advantages and manufacturing favoring flexibility in light of high variability, low volume, short product life and one can see the high value of cobots.
It is important to understand the different levels that can be distinguished in collaborative robotics (based on Bauer et al., 2016). The distinction considers the workspace and tasks of the human and the cobot during operations:
While traditional robots can only operate on Levels 0-2, cobots open new opportunities in the manufacturing of low volume or complex products. A wider set of use cases and a larger group of users can be considered for collaborative applications. This versatility renders cobots better candidates than traditional robots for production automation in the case of small or medium businesses.
Ultimately, cobots enable effective and safe collaboration between humans and machines. These human-robot teams boost productivity, drive higher quality and often offer better value for investment than fully automated solutions. But the benefits provided by cobots can only be achieved by carefully analyzing where they will make the most impact.
There are also several challenges associated with cobots that manufacturers should be aware of before any investments are made. As automation production comes with many considerations, we outline here those that are specific to cobots.
Challenge #1: A cobot is not a one-on-one substitute for a human worker.
For instance, cobots cannot detect abnormalities or variances in production unless they have been outfitted and programmed for those very tasks, while a human worker naturally inspects the products during operations. This can actually lead to more work for human employees if production issues are not caught in time. If quality control is essential, manufacturers must consider additional technology.
Challenge #2: Cobots are interacting a lot more with the environment and humans.
Manufacturers must design behaviors into their cobots that are readily understandable for human co-workers and by-standers as well, and they must implement the necessary training and education to maximize human-robot collaboration.
Challenge #3: Skewed representation of cobot applicability and limitations.
Collaborative solutions are often mixed with fenceless robotics where the true nature of cobots, namely working together with the human, is not needed (consider coexistence vs. collaboration). Contemporary safety devices provide great support for fenceless operations, often readily integrated with traditional industrial robots.
Cobots’ design results in some trade-offs that are often missed by manufacturers considering robotization of their facilities. These machines are typically moving slower and applying less force than industrial robots when completing tasks, resulting in lower throughput and limited applicability.
Manufacturers should also consider that while robotic arms are certified by the manufacturers for collaboration, safety standards require that the complete robotic application must be safe for humans. To achieve compliance process considerations, robot tooling design, cable ducting, and risk assessment are all significant factors and could be potentially overlooked by newcomers to robotics.
Starting prices of traditional and collaborative robots are generally comparable, but usually, cobots are more expensive machines. However, if one considers a complete robotic cell with all safety devices and necessary production elements the situation is the opposite. Cobots require less preparation of workpieces and machinery around them since the operator can easily adjust or help the cobot, while traditional robots must be served and handled by intricate peripherals.
Manufacturers can begin their journey to a cobot-powered organization after management decision on robotization by upgrading legacy IT systems, hiring new people with interdisciplinary skills in fields related to robotics, and upskilling existing workers so they can leverage new technologies and tools. Alternatively, technology consultants and robot integrators provide assessment services and can support manufacturers.
Once this is done, manufacturers can start to think about their cobot implementation strategy. First, they should establish the business objectives for their cobots and any potential constraints that could hinder adoption. They must of course review production processes to find the most suitable tasks for cobots to do. They must then define the requirements for process inputs and outputs, e.g. how many boxes should be packed by a cobot over a specific period, and how many packed boxes are expected to leave the factory at the end of that period. From there, manufacturers can review local constraints such as those within the site and on specific production lines, including any interfaces used by human co-workers. Once this is done, manufacturers can then develop a concept and initial layout for their robotic system.
Use this checklist when completing the strategy to ensure all aspects are considered:
There are also some criteria for cases when cobots should not be used. Considering these will help manufacturers make the right decision when it comes to choosing technology for their operations. Cobots should not be used if:
The advancement of collaborative robotics helps to streamline many manufacturing tasks that were out of reach before. After the initial standoffish reaction to new technology from the industry, cobots gained tremendous momentum in infiltrating production lines. The advancement is partly fueled by a certain hype around cobots, but it is undeniable that robotization became accessible for small and medium businesses with the ease of use and flexibility of cobots. Nowadays it is not a difficult decision for manufacturers to start implementing cobots in their production and in fact, traditional industrial robot makers offer cobot options. However, before investing in cobots for your organization, you should weigh the pros and cons, consider the financial investment, and determine how they are the right fit for your company’s needs. Work on a clear implementation strategy and consider current limitations for optimal performance.
Indeed cobots will not only continue to be workers’ extensions, but they will also become industrial robots’ companions and mobile robot payloads themselves. As our productions become more digital and automated, we expect more value coming from cobots—as long as you employ them adequately.