Understanding Cobots (Collaborative Robots) and Their Impact in Manufacturing

understanding cobots and impact in manufacturing

The adoption of cobots (collaborative robots) in modern manufacturing is on a significant upward trend, driven by the need for increased automation, efficiency, and flexibility in production processes. The global collaborative robot market is expected to grow substantially, with projections indicating it will reach $1.6 billion by the end of 2023, and continue to expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 26% until 2026. This growth is fueled by the rise of smart factories and the increasing demand for cobot automation in the Asia-Pacific region.

What are Cobots?

Cobots are a type of robot designed to work alongside human workers in a shared workspace. They function through a combination of sensors, force-limiting technology, and intuitive programming interfaces that allow them to perceive their environment and respond accordingly. These advanced sensors detect the presence and actions of human employees, enabling cobots to adjust their movements and speed to avoid collisions.

Industrial cobots can be easily programmable and reprogrammable, allowing for quick adaptation to different tasks and production needs. This adaptability is particularly beneficial in environments where production lines frequently change, as cobots can be reconfigured with minimal downtime and cost. Collaborative robots are commonly used in tasks like palletizing, machine tending, and assembly, where they enhance productivity and safety by taking over repetitive and strenuous jobs from human workers​.

Cobots vs. Robots

Cobots differ significantly from traditional industrial robots in terms of safety, ease of use, and flexibility. Traditional robots often require safety cages and operate independently of human workers to prevent accidents, whereas cobots are equipped with sensors and force-limiting technology to ensure safe human robot interaction. Collaborative robots are also more user-friendly, with intuitive programming interfaces, often without the need for extensive coding knowledge, unlike traditional robots that require complex programming and specialized skills for setup and maintenance.

Additionally, cobots offer greater flexibility as they can be easily reprogrammed and redeployed for different tasks by simply moving the robot arm along the desired path, which the cobot then "remembers" and repeats autonomously. This adaptability and safety make industrial cobots a cost-effective industrial automation solution for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) compared to traditional robots, which often involve higher costs for safety infrastructure and specialized programming.

Aspect Industrial Cobots Traditional Robots
Safety Features Equipped with sensors and force-limiting technology for safe human robot interaction Require safety cages and operate independently of human workers
Ease of Use User-friendly interfaces, often programmable without extensive coding knowledge Require skilled engineers for programming and maintenance
Flexibility Easily reprogrammed and redeployed for different tasks Fixed programming, less adaptable to changing tasks
Work Environment Designed to work alongside human workers Operate in isolation from human workers

How Much Does a Cobot Cost?

The cost of cobot integration can vary widely depending on its capabilities and applications. Generally, cobots range from $20,000 to $50,000, making them a cost-effective solution for many manufacturers compared to traditional industrial robots, which can cost significantly more due to the need for additional safety infrastructure and specialized programming.

 “I believe manufacturing systems will increasingly center on two broad categories: standard products with large production batches made with automation and traditional robots, as well as customizations, and small production batches made with collaborative robots and human operators,” said Alberto Borboni, one of the writers of the paper, “The Expanding Role of Artificial Intelligence in Collaborative Robots for Industrial Applications: A Systematic Review of Recent Works.”

 

Benefits of Cobots in Manufacturing

Let’s explore the advantages of using cobots in manufacturing, such as enhanced safety, flexibility, productivity, cost-effectiveness, and improved product quality:

    • Enhanced Safety: Cobots are designed with advanced sensors and safety features that allow them to operate safely alongside human workers. These features include force feedback, collision detection, and emergency stop capabilities, significantly reducing the risk of workplace injuries.
    • Flexibility and Ease of Programming: Industrial cobots can be easily programmed and reprogrammed for different tasks, making them highly adaptable to various manufacturing processes. This flexibility allows manufacturers to quickly adjust to changing production needs without extensive retooling or downtime.
    • Increased Productivity: By working alongside human workers, collaborative robots can handle repetitive and mundane tasks, freeing up human workers to focus on more complex and value-added activities. This collaborative approach reduces human error, enhancing overall productivity and efficiency on the manufacturing floor.
    • Cost-Effectiveness: The initial investment in cobot integration is often lower compared to traditional robots, particularly because they do not require extensive safety barriers. Additionally, the ease of integration and maintenance contributes to long-term cost savings.
    • Improved Quality and Consistency: Collaborative robotics excel in performing tasks with high precision and consistency, leading to improved product quality. They can work tirelessly without fatigue, ensuring that quality standards are consistently met throughout the production process.

 

Different Types of Industrial Cobots

The different types of industrial cobots highlight the diverse categories of collaborative robots designed to safely and efficiently interact with human workers. Below is an explanation for each type:

Power and Force Limiting Cobots

These collaborative robotics are designed to operate with a maximum force limit, ensuring that any contact with a human worker is safe. They use advanced sensors and control algorithms to monitor the force exerted during operation. Power and Force Limiting Cobots are commonly used in assembly tasks, packaging, and light material handling where human interaction is frequent.

Safety-Rated and Monitored Stop Cobots

Equipped with safety-rated sensors, these collaborative robots can stop their operations when a human enters their designated workspace. This ensures that any potential collision or interaction does not result in injury. Safety-Rated and Monitored Stop Cobots are ideal for environments where human workers frequently need to interact with the robot's working area, such as quality inspection or cooperative assembly lines.

Speed and Separation Cobots

These Speed and Separation Cobots, also called “fenceless” cobots, adjust their operational speed based on the proximity of humans. They operate at high speeds when humans are at a safe distance and slow down or stop as humans approach, ensuring safe interaction. This type of collaborative robotics is useful in large workspaces where industrial cobots and humans share tasks but do not need constant close interaction, such as in palletizing and machine tending.

Hand-Guided Cobots

Hand-guided cobots can be manually guided by human operators to perform tasks. This feature allows for easy programming and adjustment by physically moving the cobot through the desired motions. Hand-Guided Cobots are particularly useful for tasks that require frequent changes and adjustments, such as prototypes, custom manufacturing, or teaching new tasks.

 

Different Tools for Collaborative Robots

human robot interaction in manufacturing

Industrial cobots are equipped with various tools that enhance their functionality and versatility in manufacturing industry. These tools include vision systems, end-of-arm tooling (EOAT), soldering and welding tools, grippers, software, range extenders, safety systems, supply systems, and tool changers:

Cobot Vision Systems

Cobot vision systems integrate advanced cameras and image processing software to enhance a cobot’s ability to perceive and interpret its surroundings. These systems enable tasks requiring high precision, such as inspection, quality control, and assembly, by allowing the cobot to accurately identify and position objects. There are two primary types of vision systems:

    • 2D vision systems utilize two-dimensional imaging, which is ideal for tasks like barcode reading and simple inspection, offering high-speed, accurate identification of flat objects.
    • 3D vision systems provide three-dimensional imaging, essential for complex tasks requiring depth perception, such as intricate assembly and detailed quality checks.

End of Arm Tooling (EOAT)

EOAT refers to the devices attached to the end of a cobot’s arm, enabling it to perform specific tasks. In manufacturing, EOATs are used for material handling, assembly line, welding, and painting, enhancing the cobot’s functionality and adaptability to different production needs. This includes tools tailored to different applications:

    • EOAT Glue Dispensers are used for the precise application of adhesives in assembly tasks, ensuring consistent and controlled glue distribution.
    • EOAT Screwing Machines automate the process of inserting screws on assembly lines, enhancing speed and uniformity.
    • EOAT Sanders are tools used for sanding and polishing surfaces in finishing processes, providing smooth and refined results.
    • EOAT Sensors enhance the cobot’s capability to interact with its environment, providing critical feedback for tasks like inspection and quality control, thereby ensuring high precision and adaptability in various industrial settings​.

Cobot Soldering and Welding Tools

Specialized soldering and welding tools designed for collaborative robots ensure high precision and consistency in these tasks. These tools are equipped with necessary control systems to manage parameters like temperature, speed, and material feed. The primary benefit of cobot soldering and welding tools is their ability to perform repetitive tasks with exact precision, improving the quality and uniformity of welds and solders. They are extensively used in electronics manufacturing and metal fabrication, where precise and reliable connections are crucial.

Cobot Grippers

Grippers are essential EOATs that allow industrial cobots to handle objects of various shapes, sizes, and materials with care and precision, reducing the risk of damage. Available in different types, including electric, pneumatic, and vacuum grippers. In applications like packaging, cobot grippers can efficiently sort and pack items, enhancing productivity and ensuring consistent handling quality.

  • Electric Grippers offer precise control and adjustable gripping force, making them suitable for delicate and varied tasks.
  • Pneumatic Grippers utilize compressed air for strong and fast gripping actions, ideal for robust industrial applications requiring significant force.
  • Finger Grippers are flexible and adaptive, designed to handle objects of varying shapes and sizes, mimicking the versatility of the human hand.

Cobot Software

Cobot software includes programming interfaces, simulation tools, and management platforms that enable users to program, control, and optimize cobot operations. One key advantage of cobot software is that it is generally much simpler to program than traditional robots. This simplicity stems from the intuitive programming interfaces, often featuring drag-and-drop functionalities and visual aids that do not require extensive coding knowledge.

For example, collaborative robots can be programmed through hand-guiding techniques, where an operator manually guides the cobot through the desired motions, which the software then records and replicates. This ease of programming reduces setup time, enhances operational efficiency, and allows for quick adjustments, making cobots highly adaptable to changing production needs.

Cobot Range Extenders

Range extenders are devices that increase the reach and flexibility of collaborative robots, allowing them to access larger work areas or perform tasks at different heights and angles. Typically, cobots operate within a restricted range around their fixed axis where they are mounted. By integrating range extenders, industrial cobots can move both vertically and horizontally, thereby significantly enlarging their operational field. This expanded mobility enhances automation capabilities and boosts productivity by enabling cobots to execute tasks across a wider area without the need for frequent repositioning.

Cobot Safety Systems

Cobot safety systems include sensors, barriers, and software protocols designed to ensure the safe operation of collaborative robotics. These systems monitor the production environment and prevent accidents by stopping the cobot when a human enters the workspace. Cobot Safety Systems provide enhanced protection to human workers, allowing for safe and effective human robot collaboration.

Cobot Supply Systems

Supply systems manage the continuous provision of materials and components to the cobot, ensuring uninterrupted operation. These systems can include conveyor belts, automated storage and retrieval systems, and feeders. With a steady flow of materials, Cobot Supply Systems minimizes downtime and increasing production efficiency.

Cobot Tool Changers

Tool changers are automated systems that allow collaborative robots to switch between different EOATs quickly and efficiently without human intervention. In multi-step manufacturing processes, tool changers enable cobots to perform a variety of tasks, such as assembly, inspection, and packaging, without the need for manual tool changes, significantly improving efficiency and flexibility.

 

Other Industries that Use Cobots

Beyond manufacturing, there are various sectors that benefit from human robot interaction:

  1. Healthcare: Cobots assist in surgeries, patient care, and laboratory tasks, improving precision and reducing the workload on healthcare professionals.
  2. Logistics: Collaborative robotics automate tasks such as sorting, packing, and transporting goods, enhancing efficiency and accuracy in logistics operations.
  3. Automotive: Cobots assist in assembly lines, painting, and quality inspections, contributing to higher production efficiency and quality in the automotive industry.
  4. Electronics: Cobots perform precise tasks such as component placement and soldering, crucial for the high standards required in electronics industry.
  5. Food and Beverage: Cobots handle packaging, sorting, and quality control processes, ensuring hygiene and consistency in food and beverage production.

 

Is Cobot Safe to Use?

Yes, cobots are designed to be safe for use alongside human workers. They incorporate several advanced safety features that distinguish them from traditional robots. These features include force feedback systems, collision detection sensors, and safety-rated monitored stops that ensure the cobot can detect and respond to human presence. When a cobot senses an abnormal force or a collision, it can immediately stop its operation to prevent injury, making it inherently safer for collaborative tasks​.

The design and implementation of safety standards, such as ISO/TS 15066, provide guidelines for the safe operation of industrial cobots. These standards specify the maximum permissible force and speed for cobot operations, ensuring that they do not pose a risk to human workers.

While collaborative robotics are designed with advanced safety features that make them safer to use alongside human workers compared to traditional robots, they still pose potential risks during maintenance, servicing, or reprogramming. Implementing lockout/tagout procedures for cobots ensures that they are properly de-energized and isolated from electrical, hydraulic, and pneumatic power sources during such activities, preventing accidental startup and protecting maintenance personnel.

 

Impact of Cobots on Manual Labor and Environment

It's clear that the integration of cobots into manufacturing and other industries has significant implications for both manual labor and the environment. Collaborative robots take on repetitive, monotonous, and physically demanding tasks, significantly reducing the risk of repetitive strain injuries and other workplace accidents. This shift in manufacturing jobs allows human workers to focus on more complex, creative, and supervisory roles. Consequently, there is a growing need for upskilling and reskilling programs to help workers transition into these new roles, such as programming, maintenance, and quality control of cobots. This not only enhances worker safety and job satisfaction but also leads to more engaging and intellectually stimulating work environments.

From an environmental perspective, cobots contribute to greater efficiency and precision in manufacturing processes, which can lead to reduced waste and lower energy consumption. Their ability to perform tasks with high accuracy minimizes material wastage and defects, promoting more sustainable production practices. For instance, their precise application in tasks like assembly, welding, and inspection ensures optimal use of materials, reducing the overall environmental footprint.

 

FAQs about Industrial Cobots

What technology is used in cobots?

Cobots utilize a combination of advanced sensors, machine learning algorithms, and intuitive programming interfaces. Key technologies include force feedback sensors, collision detection systems, and vision systems (both 2D and 3D) for precise object recognition and handling. These technologies enable cobots to safely interact with human workers and adapt to various tasks in dynamic environments​.

Which company is the largest maker of cobots?

Universal Robots is widely recognized as the largest and leading manufacturer of cobots. The company pioneered the development of collaborative robots and continues to dominate the market with its versatile and user-friendly UR series of cobots​.

Why are cobots better than robots?

Cobots are better than traditional robots in environments requiring close human robot interaction because they are designed with built-in safety features that allow them to work alongside human workers without the need for extensive safety barriers. They are easier to program, more flexible, and can quickly adapt to different tasks, which makes them ideal for dynamic and changing work environments.

What are some examples of cobots?

Examples of cobots include Universal Robots' UR series (e.g., UR3, UR5, UR10), FANUC’s CR series, and KUKA’s LBR iiwa. These cobots are used in various applications such as assembly, packaging, machine tending, welding, and quality inspection.

How long do cobots last?

Cobots are designed for longevity and reliability, typically lasting around 35,000 to 50,000 hours of operation, depending on usage and maintenance. With proper care and regular maintenance, cobots can operate efficiently for many years, making them a durable and cost-effective solution for industrial automation.

 

TRADESAFE is a leader in providing premium industrial safety solutions, including Lockout Tagout Devices, Eyewash Stations, and more; all precision-engineered to meet and exceed rigorous safety standards.

The material provided in this article is for general information purposes only. It is not intended to replace professional/legal advice or substitute government regulations, industry standards, or other requirements specific to any business/activity. While we made sure to provide accurate and reliable information, we make no representation that the details or sources are up-to-date, complete or remain available. Readers should consult with an industrial safety expert, qualified professional, or attorney for any specific concerns and questions.

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Author: Herbert Post

Born in the Philadelphia area and raised in Houston by a family who was predominately employed in heavy manufacturing. Herb took a liking to factory processes and later safety compliance where he has spent the last 13 years facilitating best practices and teaching updated regulations. He is married with two children and a St Bernard named Jose. Herb is a self-described compliance geek. When he isn’t studying safety reports and regulatory interpretations he enjoys racquetball and watching his favorite football team, the Dallas Cowboys.