Are cobots the answer to the manufacturing industry’s shortage of qualified workers?
Ask the owner of any machine shop or sheet-metal house to name the biggest obstacle to company growth and you’re likely to receive the same answer—it’s not a lack of working capital that’s slowing them down, nor a shortage of advanced technology, but something far more basic: the need for someone to push a green button or pack boxes. “We can’t find enough people,” you’ll hear.
Adding insult to injury, those who have somehow overcome their labor problems—through partnerships with area vocational schools or via internal worker development programs—are still faced with an equally challenging obstacle, namely stiff competition from manufacturers in low-labor-cost countries. How can anyone expect to stay afloat when your competitor’s payroll is but a fraction of your own?
The solution is obvious: automate. Cruise the aisles of any automotive plant and you’re sure to see hordes of yellow, orange, or white robots tending lengthy assembly lines. The same can be said for any large manufacturing company, where industrial robots load and unload parts from machining cells, apply paint to passing workpieces or join components in automated welding cells. Labor problem solved.
But what about the rest of the manufacturing world, where lower production volumes make automation a seemingly dubious proposition? Everyone knows that industrial robots are expensive. They require skilled technicians to program them, and elaborate guarding or light curtains to prevent injury to their human coworkers. Changeover from one job to the next takes precious time, never mind the need for special end-of-arm tooling, conveyors to move material into and out of the robot’s reach, and routine maintenance of yet one more piece of shop-floor equipment.
A Universal Solution
Although the source of the terms “collaborative” and “cobot” is fiercely debated, one thing is clear: around 10-15 years ago, several robotics providers attempted to solve the hassle factor with a new take on automation. The UR5 “collaborative” robot from Universal Robots (Odense, Denmark), for example, promised to eliminate safety guarding. Installation reportedly took less than an hour. The touch-screen interface was said to be simple enough for anyone to use, and the robot was light enough to be moved to wherever it was needed. And with a price point far lower than comparably-sized industrial robots, cobots would soon be found in shops large and small, the company predicted.
They were right. Other robotics companies soon followed suit, and today virtually every industrial robot supplier either produces or is actively working on its own answer to the UR5. So popular have cobots become, in fact, that a recent blog on the Robotic Industries Association’s (RIA; Ann Arbor, MI) website suggests the current 3% market share enjoyed by collaborative robots will increase tenfold by 2025.
An impressive figure, to be sure, but what does that mean for traditional, less human-friendly robots—will they soon go the way of belt-driven machinery and carbon-steel toolbits? And setting aside their tremendous growth potential, are cobots really all they’re cracked up to be, or is this yet another example of marketing hype outpacing reality?
Less is More
Stuart Shepherd, regional sales director for Universal Robots Americas (Ann Arbor, MI), doesn’t think so. There are some very good reasons for the hype, he said, including less guarding, less floor space, and less need for operator training.
“Cobots represent an opportunity for automation to be used by more companies and in applications not previously addressed,” Shepherd said. “They could be the most significant change in the automation industry since the inventions of PLCs [programmable logic controllers] and indeed robots themselves.”
Manufacturers of all sizes enjoy the benefits that cobots bring to the production floor, Shepherd noted, adding that the ease of use, together with a low total cost of ownership, make them especially attractive to smaller companies. It’s this, in part, that explains their faster-than-market-average growth, Shepherd said, although he’s quick to point out that, because cobot implementation is easier than with industrial robots, their use is expanding beyond manufacturing to include food processing, warehouse activities, laboratory and scientific applications.
Broad applications notwithstanding, it’s within the traditional manufacturing space that cobots are most often addressing the serious and pervasive problem outlined above: the lack of qualified, available talent to work on the factory floor. That’s according to Jim Lawton, chief operating officer at cobot builder Rethink Robotics Inc. (Boston).
“With their ability to complete tasks that, until now, could only be done by humans, cobots play a key role in alleviating this pain,” he said. “In addition, they can fill jobs that human workers aren’t eager to take on, including those that are tedious, strenuous or outright dangerous, giving employees the opportunity to move on to more desirable roles.”
Industrial robots have been cheerfully accepting dirty jobs for decades. What makes cobots so special? Lawton offered several arguments:
- With their built-in force sensing, cobots are perfectly suited for electronics assembly and similarly delicate work.
- Because they typically require no guarding, they’re also a great fit for tasks like packaging, product testing and inspection, and indeed any environment where humans are present.
- The ability to quickly and easily deploy cobots makes them ideal for short production runs and frequent changeovers, a huge trend in manufacturing.
- Cobots are also able to work alongside larger industrial robots, complementing their work.
- Most cobots can be trained by simply moving the arm in demonstration of the desired task to be completed. No extensive software suites are required.
- For seasonal manufacturers or those that see great variability in customer demand, cobots offer a reliable, adaptable resource for peak demand periods.
“Cobots provide manufacturers with the ability to automate so much more today than in previous years, allowing them to remain competitive and inno-vative no matter the industry,” Lawton said. “Simply put, they’re reliable, effective and adaptable, and they help companies become more successful.”
Stepping on Toes
If you’re wondering where your shop can get some of that success, there are a few things to keep in mind before hopping aboard the Cobot Express. For starters, no production manager or shop owner wants to see its employees mutiny over a perceived robotic revolution. When integrating this new technology on the factory floor, it’s important for manufacturers to let the flesh-and-blood workers know that cobots are there to help them do their jobs, not replace them.
The key to successful cobot integration also begins with selecting the right task. As Lawton points out, when a cobot isn’t being used or appreciated, it’s almost always because it’s been deployed on the wrong task. “Cobots aren’t meant to meet every automation need, and some tasks are better suited to the technology than others,” he said. “Here’s where it becomes really important for a manufacturer to work directly with the cobot provider or distributor from day one to identify the right application and ensure the cobot will be used in the best possible way. From there, implementation and integration with existing processes is smooth and seamless.”
Rick Maxwell, director of engineering for the general industry and automotive segment at FANUC America Corp. (Rochester Hills, MI), agreed, adding that it’s important to evaluate the application need to provide the right robotic solution. “Is it truly collaborative in nature, or is it better suited for a traditional industrial robot?” he said. “Determining which is more appropriate for the customer’s needs is largely determined by the operation’s throughput requirements, along with the weight and complexity of the object or part that needs to be handled.”
There’s the catch, something that fans of more traditional automation are quick to call attention to: most cobots are less than lightning fast. As Maxwell pointed out, cobots are best suited to simple, straightforward pick-and-place applications, and doing so at a slow and steady rate. This will almost certainly change as cobot technology improves, but for now at least, don’t expect to see their speed come anywhere near the lightning-fast movements of industrial robots.
But that’s okay. The need for people to safely interact with machinery in manufacturing workcells is quite real, an activity made possible by a cobot’s ability to sense unexpected contact with objects in its work zone, thus eliminating constraints against them sharing their workstations with people. Said Maxwell, “This is a major safety and cost benefit, as it allows the robot to perform strenuous tasks and repetitive operations without the need for expensive industrial safety barriers.”
Like other builders, FANUC is receiving a growing number of inquiries from companies looking for a collaborative robot solution. Somewhat ironically, a fair share of these requests are coming from an unexpected source: larger manufacturers that have extensive experience with industrial robots. “Opportunities for collaborative robot applications are available in all companies, large and small,” Maxwell said.
Nicolas De Keijser, assembly and test business line manager at ABB Robotics (Auburn Hills, MI), is seeing a similar trend. “Because cobots are typically easier to use and less costly to integrate, they are very attractive to small or medium-size enterprises, as they make automation more attainable,” he said. “So compared to traditional robots, there’s probably a more even usage of cobots across the entire manufacturing spectrum, in companies of all sizes.”
Aside from pick-and-place, what are cobots being used for? Of the total demand, De Keijser and Maxwell agreed that the lion’s share of future growth is expected to come from the material-handling segment, where cobots are used to package parts, palletize boxes, load conveyors, and more, although De Keijser added that some cobots are especially well-suited to complex assembly tasks, including small or delicate components. They’re also a favorite for machine tending, loading and unloading CNC lathes and machining centers, for instance, or pulling finished parts out of plastic injection molds.
Not So Fast
Regardless of the application or the company size, those accustomed to the performance of an industrial robot need to be aware of several things, noted David M. Robers, robotics sales manager for the Americas at Denso Robotics (West Chester, OH). “Cobots are often sold into applications that they have no business in,” he said. “Yes, they’re fine for basic pick-and-place tasks, and in applications with relatively long cycle times, but most can’t compete with the speed and accuracy of a traditional industrial robot.”
Their collaborative nature can also be overstated. Says Robers, “If you put a knife on the end of a cobot, it’s no longer collaborative. If you use a gripper that has the ability to pinch somebody’s finger, then it’s not considered collaborative. Whether it’s ours or someone else’s product, you have to assess whether the solution is truly safe, and add the proper guarding if needed.
There’s also the “what if” to think about. Users familiar with an industrial robot’s ability to recover in the event of a dropped part or retract from deep within a workpiece in the event of a power glitch, for example, may be disappointed if their shiny new cobot needs human help to resolve an awkward situation.
“If you have plenty of cycle time, don’t require extreme repeatability, and people need to be in and around the work area, then those are decent applications for a cobot,” Robers said. “Otherwise, I might argue that an industrial robot is a better solution, and depending on the results of the safety assessment that any robot customer should do before buying one, could cost less money to implement while offering greater performance. There’s a lot of hype surrounding cobots—people are excited about them, and the theory behind them is sound, but this is definitely one instance where buyers should do their homework.”