Will your next employee be a cobot?

Because of their many advantages, the use of industrial robots is long established in high-tech sectors such as automotive manufacturing. However, their drawbacks meant that they were not well known in other sectors or in SMEs. With the rise of cobots, however, this may change.

Fast and flexible, for small series

Industrial robots have long been a common sight in highly automated industries such as the automotive sector. So they clearly have many advantages. Think, for example, of the speed and accuracy with which they can move components or assemble things. But ... there are also disadvantages. For example, concern for safety means that they are mostly put behind fences, away from human employees. In addition, specialised programming knowledge is needed to configure them, as a result of which they are less flexible in use in numerous industrial processes.

There are, however, robots that do perform well in these areas - the collaborative robots. These ‘cobots’ have been on the market for a few years and have huge potential for many sectors, especially for SMEs.

Unlike industrial robots, cobots are 'plug and produce’ - easy to program, flexible in use and safe 

Safety built in, risk analysis indicated

Cobots are easy to use and work side-by-side with people in small series production. And they do that in complete safety. This safety is guaranteed by the intrinsic safety systems of the cobots. This is because they are fitted with sensors that detect when someone comes too close or shut down the cobot because they touch someone or something. The stopping speed depends on the operating speed. And the pain and damage that a cobot can cause is determined by the force it exerts. Attention should therefore be focussed on the cobot and the force it exerts. The current ISO standard, ISO 10218-1: 2011, no longer imposes limits for speed and power, although a risk analysis has to be performed for every application. This can be used to determine the maximum speed and force to be permitted in a particular application.

Collaborative robots or cobots work side by side with employees and are flexible enough to be used in different steps in the process

Can be used at various stages in the process

Cobots are flexible to use. You can use them for different steps in your processes as they are easy to move. In addition, you can get started quickly with a cobot. ‘Plug and produce’ as it were, without specialised programming. You can teach it a particular operation in less than a day. And it can be done in an intuitive way.

You can configure the cobot in different ways. It can be done, for example, online via a ‘teach pendant’ that lets you send a cobot to a particular position or by 'teach-by-demonstration', in which you take the cobot by the wrist and bring it to the position where an action must occur. With one simple press on the button, the position is stored.

The disadvantage of this online approach is that the process then has to be temporarily shut down. You can minimise this sort of downtime by teaching the cobot something offline. That is done through a simulation program in which you can have the cobot perform a movement in an animation. You can then store this operation in a program and feed it into the cobot via USB.


Cobots can be configured in different ways - even online by using an intuitive touch panel to move a cobot to certain position

What should I look for when buying a cobot?

There are therefore so many advantages to a cobot. But before buying a cobot, it's important to keep some things in mind:

  • Tasks. The tasks that a cobot must perform can be analysed with care. To be sure that the cobot can take over certain tasks effectively from the current employee. Cobots are particularly suited to simple repetitive tasks in small batches. That is, pick-&-place applications and light assembly.
  • Programming. Although setting up a cobot can be done quickly and with no knowledge of robotics, there is some programming involved. This can be done in a very intuitive way, but it's something that you do have to train the operator for.
  • Grippers. Depending on the specific application, a specific gripper must be integrated. There are several types, including finger grippers, suction cups, magnets and customised grippers - think, for example, of a gripper that can pick up and install windows. There are also hands available with two or even five fingers, although the latter is still expensive and under development.
  • Vision. A cobot is ‘blind’. A camera is therefore needed to let the cobot "see", so that it can perceive any changes in the position of the product or component and adjust its action accordingly. There are already 3D cameras on the market. A camera does increase the complexity of the cobot. A certain knowledge of image processing is naturally needed. However, thanks to programs such as Pick-it from the Flemish Intermodalics company, this can be done without any knowledge of complex algorithms.
  • Periphery. The environment the cobot is used in should also be taken into account. Consider, for example, the supply and transport of the products or components, and the speed at which this occurs. The lighting also plays an important role as the camera can be blinded, especially with products that are reflective. 

Knowledge and hardware available in Flanders

A robot that, working side by side with your staff, assembles products, loads machinery and performs loading or other repetitive tasks is no longer science fiction. Several brands of industrial robots are already on the market (Rethink Robotics, Universal Robots, KUKA, etc.). There is a great deal of research in Belgium and the knowledge required is also available. Not only in research organisations - most brands are also represented in our country.

Sirris opens a new application lab for cobots

Sirris has important knowledge and skills in the field of collaborative robots. It has four industrial cobots - which is unique in Belgium - and carries out the technical and economic feasibility studies. Moreover, Sirris will open a new applications lab on 3 March 2016 in Kortrijk where it can specifically investigate the feasibility of cobots in the smart automation of assembly processes for small series.

Do you want to attend the grand opening? Then register here!