Collaborative Robots Transform Industry

Reposted from By Bill Lydon, Editor – May 1, 2015

I am convinced that collaborative robots are the highest impact automation development to improve manufacturing since the assembly line. This came into clearer focus over the last two months when I moderated the International Federation of Robotics Executive Roundtable and attended Automate 2015 and Hannover Fair 2015 in Germany.

The new breed of light-weight and inexpensive robots work cooperatively with people in a production environment. They provide a new way to implement flexible manufacturing without extensive plant floor retrofits and large capital investment. Collaboration is possible since these robots are inherently safe. They sense humans and other obstacles and automatically stop so they do not cause harm or destruction. Protective fences and cages are not required and therefore enable flexibility and lower implementation cost. These robots are particularly attractive investments for small to medium sized companies. The typical cost is less than $40,000 and their simplified programming means they can be deployed without hiring specialized engineers.

The development of this new class of robots is similar to the expansion of the application of computers with the development of the Personal Computer (PC). In the beginning, computers were expensive powerful devices locked away in special rooms and programmed by software specialists who wrote cryptic computer code. Since the cost to implement solutions was high, few applications were done using computers. When PCs were introduced, they did not have the computational power of mainframes and minicomputers nor the large amount of memory. But with their lower cost and flexibility, people were empowered to apply computers to a wider range of applications. This factor, coupled with simplified programming, led to a revolution in the application of computers for industrial automation. These new collaborative robots cannot pick up an engine block but they can perform a wide range of tasks with smaller payloads, typically under 20 kilograms. This type of technology pattern ignites revolutions by providing a product with less power than larger offerings but adds value for a broader number of users.

The programming process of this new class of robots is greatly simplified and eliminates the need for programming gurus. In the past, the industry created robot programming interfaces for engineers who wanted PLC (Programmable Logic Controller) type software languages. Collaborative robots in contrast are easy to use without complex programming. Most tasks can be accomplished with no programming skills by simply moving the robot arms and end effectors. The teacher effectively shows the robot what to do and the robot memorizes the motions and creates the program. This is a physical form of the popular computer concept called “what you see is what you get” (WYSIWYG) programming. It is intuitive for users and has proven to broaden the application of technology.

Collaborative robots can flawlessly perform repetitive and mundane tasks that were previously performed by an operator. Operators no longer are forced to stand at a machine for hours doing mindless work. This improves productivity and quality while freeing up workers to do work that requires human skills.

Industry 4.0, Smart Factory, and Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) initiatives focus on automation investments for make-to-order, automatically-documented manufacturing. Collaborative robots can be used to accomplish these objectives at a low cost since they can be programmed to perform multiple tasks. In addition, these robots are being mounted on rolling stands so they can be moved to various workstations and production cells to perform various tasks. This mobility increases flexibility and dramatically improves return on investment in comparison to fixed-equipment manufacturing investments.

The new class of collaborative robots is an exciting development. If it follows the cost performance trends of past developments, like PCs, we at the beginning of a new revolution.