The potential of cobots examined

In increasingly more production halls, man and machine are working side by side. A recent US study presents the current situation and extensively examines various use cases, to shed light on this relatively new technology.

Bringing together collaborative robots (cobots) and humans into a shared working environment remains a hot topic in the industry to this day. The collaboration of humans and robots extends over various sectors, from production, logistics and professional services, to even consumer-focused service sectors.

Research by the American Robotic Industries Association (RIA) among end users with varying industrial and commercial backgrounds reveals that collaborative robotics is still an emerging technology. The largest group of potential users – SMEs – are only just starting to understand the benefits and limitations. Although the applications are still mostly to be found with major multinationals, this is undergoing change. Companies of all sizes are using the technology due to its safety, flexibility, ease of integration and adaptability, space-saving, cost efficiency, rapid ROI and, in many cases, also straightforward programming. Operators are slowly getting used to sharing the production floor with these new ‘colleagues’.

The robots and enabling technologies have advanced considerably over the last five years, making a wide range of applications over numerous industrial and commercial sectors possible. The various options offering brands and swiftly expanding product features, is helping to push the price down and triggering further technological progress in competitors' ranges. Cobots can assume different forms: power and force-limited robots, classic robots with functional safety technology, and autonomous mobile robots.

Mobile robots might be where their stationary, collaborative cousins were a few years ago. They can count on a large group of early adapters possessing the resources for developing applications and reducing the risks. What the current safety standards did for the wider assimilation of power and force-limited robots, is also expected to be achieved by mobile robots in the near future. Safety will always take the highest priority.

The researchers expect to see more interaction between humans and robots in the future. Not only when they're working in close proximity, but also effective collaboration: passing each other parts and components and working on assemblies together.

Some practical examples

Many major multinationals want to stay ahead of the game technologically and are embracing robotics, particularly cobots. This way, they aim to retain their competitive advantage in quality, efficiency and cost, and at the same time enhance the safety of their workforces. An example of such a company is General Motors, which has a long history of innovating with robots. The car manufacturer has around 35,000 robots worldwide in production, and introduces new collaborative applications every month. The manufacturer uses both classic robots for collaborative applications, and power and force-limited robots.

Some examples of the General Motors (GM) approach are the car constructor frequently using a dual check safety system (Fanuc). A software-based technology integrated into the robot controls in combination with external safety mechanisms such as safety sensors. This makes human-robot collaborative operations possible, even with robots with a high payload. All production cells welding locking systems such as doors, bonnets and boot lids thus use this technology. They allow humans and heavy-duty robots to share the same work space if necessary for loading or unloading components, or changing clamping.

Collaborative robots are employed for all kinds of applications where humans and robots have to work together. They are used, among other things, to help stack spare tyres and place them in vehicles. With a vision system fitted onto the arm, the cobots are used for quality control, to check the surface or dimensions of components and assemblies. For screwing on bolts, cobots are used to position the tool on the bolt, and to screw it in up to a certain tension. In gluing applications, the robots ensure employees are not exposed to heat and glues with strong odours, and they achieve higher application accuracy.

By setting up safety systems without railings, the operators are able to walk freely between the cobots, meaning various operations can be brought into one station, saving space on the work floor.

Another multinational pioneering in technology is General Electric (GE). Throughout the company, robots are employed in the aviation aerospace, energy production and healthcare departments. The majority of assemblies were performed manually in its lighting factory in Handersonville (North Carolina, US), until a Sawyer cobot (Rethink) was introduced in 2015. Both products and technologies are frequently changing, meaning a flexible solution such as Sawyer is a better choice than a fixed solution. Some experimentation was required to investigate where and for which tasks this cobot would best be deployed. For instance, an operator could gain two hours a day by taking metals boxes, placing them in a line and covering the inside with a plastic. The cobot could furthermore be made to collaborate with a cartesian robot, for applying silicon to glass plates. That meant one less operator was required on the line.

Whirlpool has factories historically constructed for manual assemblies, and automation here proved to be a real challenge. Cobots were recently introduced to take over repetitive tasks posing ergonomic risks for employees. The over 50 cobots (UR end Fanuc) are used for picking and placing components, and applying glue or sealants. Some of them have a camera on the arm for visual inspection. Whirlpool succeeded in developing the skills sets for deploying the cobots itself. This is down to their ease of use and straightforward programming, meaning an extensive background in robotics and automation isn’t required for implementing them.

If you’d like to set to work with cobots, mobile or otherwise, get in touch with us!

This article has been written with the support of Agentschap Innoveren en Ondernemen (project 'VISiv-Flexibele automatisering').

(Source picture: Current, powered by GE)