Collaborative robots are increasingly attractive to manufacturers who require flexible solutions for their growing product mix but may not have the scale of work or capital resources needed to justify larger investments in automation systems.
These collaborative robots, commonly referred to as “cobots,” can execute tasks with minimal programming and adapt to variations in part position and size. Humans work side-by-side with cobots to reduce the need for custom fixturing that can make high-mix, low-volume (HMLV) work inefficient. Cobots can also go to where the work is on the shop floor.
The Purdue Manufacturing Extension Partnership has identified manufacturers that have a lot to gain from cobot adoption. Investing in collaborative robots may make the most sense for:
Thanks in part to work being done by the Measurement Science for Manufacturing Robotics program within the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) Engineering Laboratory (EL), collaborative robots are now smaller, lighter and easier for small and medium-sized manufacturers (SMMs) to integrate and have improved interoperability within work cells.
Human-robot collaboration has been found to be 85 percent more productive than either humans or robots working alone according to MIT research. The cobot operates much like an assistant for the staff member.
Pure robotics requires incredible amounts of programming and sensors to account for the many possible variables. For example, it’s far more cost effective for a person to bring and present parts to a robot for subassembly or welding than to train the robot to go elsewhere in a facility — with all of the safety and environmental factors involved — to gather materials and do the job.
Cobots, on the other hand, work with software for many machines and applications, which means they can quickly be redeployed to add flexibility to operations. They also are lightweight but reliable. Many cobots have warranties that account for enough operational hours to run continuously for several years.
The three most common types of cobots are:
Tasks vary greatly with HMLV work, which creates challenges for productivity and overall equipment efficiency. But HMLV work often still includes monotonous routines that can result in mistakes and repetitive motions that can cause strains and injuries for workers.
Among the many applications that collaborative robots are being used for in HMLV shops are:
The versatility of cobots is among the most appealing benefits for HMLV work. It’s like having an employee who can master many different, often unappealing tasks.
NIST Labs continue to work on uniformity for cobots, so that systems of seemingly identical specifications may be measured, evaluated and compared in a repeatable and meaningful way.
Elena Messina, a group leader at the NIST EL’s Intelligent Systems Division provides these insight into challenges for increased use of cobots:
Collaborative robots also have limitations, including:
Manufacturers can benefit from the traditional robotic value proposition that cobots provide — doing repetitive tasks that free up human workers to do more complex work. Additionally, cobots can come at a significant savings compared to automation systems and position manufacturers for future innovation.
Collaborative robotics can be an intimidating frontier for SMMs, especially for those whose early efforts with automation and digital technologies did not go well. Your local MEP Center can guide you through the process of implementing collaborative robots and help you make an educated decision about your investment.