Call them what you will: collaborative robots, intelligent assist devices (IADs) or simply “the workforce of the future.” Cobots are coming to a plant floor near you, and the realities of what they can do may surprise you.
First, let’s address the elephant in the room. Contrary to popular belief, here’s what cobots won’t do: take your job. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence that they may actually make production jobs easier and more enjoyable.
How? Cobots can cut down on the dangerous, dirty or downright boring jobs that someone (or some “thing”) is expected to tackle. Think: mind-numbing repetitive tasks, ergonomically demanding jobs, and heavy lifting.
There’s a reason they call them “collaborative” robots. These machines are there to assist—not replace—workers on the plant floor. Auto manufacturers like Ford, Nissan and BMW are successfully using cobots to streamline production, improve efficiency and boost productivity.
According to an MIT report, “Teams made of humans and robots collaborating efficiently can be more productive than teams made of either humans or robots alone.”
Release the Beasts
Cobots mark a major machinery transition on the industrial floor. Traditionally, massive industrial robots have been locked away behind cages to prevent injury. With their bulk and rapid repetitive movements, the old workhorses are simply not safe for human interaction.
Enter collaborative robots.
Smaller, safer and more nimble than their predecessors, cobots work alongside their human counterparts on the factory floor. These small, mobile machines are also safer, thanks to high-tech sensors that stop them when something (like a finger) is in their path. And when humans and cobots do come into contact, force-limiting technology prevents injury.
“Teams made of humans and robots collaborating efficiently can be more productive than teams made of either humans or robots alone.”
Bringing robots out from behind caged walls improves efficiency, as it’s no longer necessary to transport parts back and forth between workers on the production line and robots that are bolted to the floor. Cobots’ small size also makes them more practical on crowded manufacturing floors.
Beyond safety, mobility and size advantages, cobots are also less expensive and smarter than traditional industrial robots. Cobots cost 20% the price of their much larger predecessors, and are also less expensive to operate and maintain.
While industrial robots are generally programmed to repeatedly carry out very specific actions from within their designated areas, smarter cobots are adaptable to different tasks and can easily be moved around the factory floor. They’re also much easier to program.
Unlike other industrial robots, cobots don’t require coding. They can easily be programmed from a tablet or smartphone (no specialized skills required), and in some cases, even by moving their arms in a specified pattern. In other words, cobots are practically plug and play.
So what kind of work can these adaptable, easy to operate co-robots actually do?
They’re especially well suited for monotonous, physically taxing jobs.
From lightweight operations like moving products into trays or cases to heavy-duty jobs like depalletizing, cobots can tackle a variety of tasks. They’re often used for machine tending, packaging, material handling and assembling materials like plastics, woods, and metals.
It remains to be seen whether the rise of the cobots will revolutionize the industry, or simply improve production line jobs by taking over less desirable tasks. If early adopters serve as any indication, efficiency and productivity seem to improve significantly when robots work hand in hand with their human counterparts.
The advantages alone make them worth a look, namely that they’re safe, affordable, simple to program, and highly adaptable to a variety of tasks. Perhaps it’s time to consider introducing your team to their favorite new coworker, who happens to be a robot. Make that a cobot.