Introduction to Collaborative Robots

May 1, 2021

Topics include definitions and terminology of collaborative robots, a brief history, applications, advantages and disadvantages, and programming techniques.

Intro­duc­tion to Col­lab­o­ra­tive Robots

In 2008 Uni­ver­sal Robots sold the first col­lab­o­ra­tive robot (cobot) to Lina­tex, a Dan­ish sup­pli­er of tech­ni­cal plas­tics and rub­ber for indus­tri­al appli­ca­tions. This robot broke all pre­con­ceived ideas of how com­pa­nies could inte­grate automa­tion into the work­place. A col­lab­o­ra­tive robot works direct­ly with humans in a defined space with­out the risk of a seri­ous acci­dent or severe injury. A cobot’s appeal isn’t just its col­lab­o­ra­tive ele­ment but also its quick instal­la­tion and return on invest­ment (ROI). The col­lab­o­ra­tive robot series has tak­en off in var­i­ous indus­tries, allow­ing fur­ther advance­ments in that tech­nol­o­gy and intro­duc­ing it into non-man­u­fac­tur­ing settings.

After its intro­duc­tion, the col­lab­o­ra­tive robot sec­tor saw explo­sive growth in the mar­ket. In 2019 col­lab­o­ra­tive robots’ glob­al rev­enue was $669.9 mil­lion, with 22,459 robots shipped that year. The mar­ket con­tin­ued to see suc­cess until the COVID-19 glob­al pan­dem­ic hit, result­ing in a sharp decrease in demand just like the rest of the robot­ic mar­ket. How­ev­er, the mar­ket pre­dicts a con­sid­er­able rebound and will reach its most sig­nif­i­cant mar­ket growth rate in 2021 at 20%. The col­lab­o­ra­tive robot’s inno­v­a­tive design gives it the perks of an indus­tri­al robot while pro­vid­ing flex­i­bil­i­ty, safe­ty, and afford­abil­i­ty; mak­ing it the most pop­u­lar robot on the market.

What Makes These Robots Col­lab­o­ra­tive”

The inno­v­a­tive design of a cobot enables work­ers to safe­ly inter­act with the robot in a col­lab­o­ra­tive space, with min­i­mal risk of injuries or dam­ages. Cobots achieve this high safe­ty stan­dard with a round­ed design, safe­ty-rat­ed stop mon­i­tor­ing, force lim­i­ta­tions, hand-guid­ed pro­gram­ming, and a com­pact body. The col­lab­o­ra­tive robot’s stop-mon­i­tor­ing pro­gram detects intru­sions and stops while occu­py­ing the robot’s work enve­lope. An exam­ple of this would be a work­er enter­ing the col­lab­o­ra­tive space to inter­act with the robot, trig­ger­ing it to come to a com­plete stop until the work­er clears the robot’s work enve­lope. The round­ed design and force lim­i­ta­tions also aid in a soft­er blow upon impact with work­ers, result­ing in lit­tle to no injury. 

Along­side safe­ty fea­tures, col­lab­o­ra­tive robots offer users a state-of-the-art, yet friend­ly, pro­gram­ming inter­face. Work­ers can start using the col­lab­o­ra­tive robot after only a small amount of train­ing. Pro­gram­ming for these robots is intu­itive to the user because of its hand-guid­ing fea­ture, also known as FreeDrive mode. The user can pro­gram the robot’s path by phys­i­cal­ly mov­ing it to its desired posi­tions. Col­lab­o­ra­tive Robot tech­nol­o­gy will progress fur­ther, see­ing advance­ment as their scope of work con­tin­ues to broaden.

Cobot Appli­ca­tions Expand as Tech­nol­o­gy Advances

Mar­ket ana­lysts expect the col­lab­o­ra­tive robot mar­ket to con­tin­ue to grow due to sev­er­al factors: 

  • A short­age in qual­i­fied labor­ers (man­u­fac­tur­ing skills gap)
  • More indus­tries invest­ing in col­lab­o­ra­tive automation
  • High­er demand for a product
  • Need for flex­i­bil­i­ty in auto­mat­ed processes

Small to medi­um-size busi­ness­es (SMBs) have been the biggest buy­ers of col­lab­o­ra­tive robots. The low­er price point and a small­er ini­tial invest­ment of cobots nat­u­ral­ly make for a bet­ter ROI. Their quick inte­gra­tion and flex­i­bil­i­ty allow SMBs to reduce down­time and non-pro­duc­tive activ­i­ties dur­ing pro­duc­tion hours. Advances in col­lab­o­ra­tive automa­tion have led to new indus­tries invest­ing in robot­ic appli­ca­tions using cobots. Among these indus­tries, the auto­mo­tive and elec­tron­ics sec­tors are expect­ed to be the most sig­nif­i­cant col­lab­o­ra­tive robot users. 

Com­pa­nies are using col­lab­o­ra­tive robots for appli­ca­tions that are high­ly repet­i­tive and require great pre­ci­sion. The three most pop­u­lar appli­ca­tions per­formed by col­lab­o­ra­tive robots are mate­ri­als han­dling, assem­bly, and pick & place. These appli­ca­tions attrib­uted to 71.9% of col­lab­o­ra­tive robot rev­enues in 2019 and are pre­dict­ed to hold a 62.7% share in 2024. How­ev­er new indus­tries invest­ing in cobots have led to exper­i­men­ta­tion in dif­fer­ent appli­ca­tions, espe­cial­ly out­side man­u­fac­tur­ing. A great exam­ple of this can be found in the health­care indus­try, where cobots are being used to assist in surg­eries and oth­er med­ical areas. Oth­er com­mon appli­ca­tions per­formed by cobots include assem­bly, dis­pens­ing, fin­ish­ing, machine tend­ing, mate­r­i­al han­dling, weld­ing, mate­r­i­al removal, qual­i­ty inspections. 

Are Cobots A Good Fit For Your Company?

Col­lab­o­ra­tive robots are pop­u­lar for a good rea­son; how­ev­er, they are not suit­able for every sit­u­a­tion. A com­pa­ny look­ing into col­lab­o­ra­tive automa­tion would first need to deter­mine the task they need to auto­mate, the require­ments that need to be met, risk assess­ment of the solu­tion, and con­sult with an automa­tion solu­tions provider. Many fac­tors need to be con­sid­ered when invest­ing in an auto­mat­ed solu­tion. While cobot tech­nol­o­gy is advanc­ing at an accel­er­at­ed rate, these robots still have cer­tain lim­i­ta­tions. With a com­pact design and slim build, these robots have a small pay­load and reach ver­sus their indus­tri­al robot coun­ter­parts. Most com­mon col­lab­o­ra­tive robots can only han­dle small­er pay­loads between 3 – 16 kg, with the high­est pay­load lim­it being 35 kg. Anoth­er pos­si­ble lim­i­ta­tion of col­lab­o­ra­tive robots is their restrict­ed speed. With safe­ty being a top pri­or­i­ty, speed is usu­al­ly reduced to pro­tect work­ers and lim­it the risk of impact. The best way to decide on whether col­lab­o­ra­tive automa­tion is a good fit for your busi­ness is to answer these questions:

  • What is the goal for automating?
  • Is the facil­i­ty a safe and desir­able place for workers?
  • Are the process­es being auto­mat­ed fixed or changeable?
  • Will the solu­tion sup­port man­u­al process­es or auto­mate a com­plete man­u­fac­tur­ing line?
  • How much space does the facil­i­ty have for automa­tion equipment?
  • What scal­a­bil­i­ty require­ments are there to sup­port long-term growth?
  • What is the pay­load, reach, accu­ra­cy, and cycle time requirements?

After answer­ing all of these ques­tions, a com­pa­ny can con­sult with an automa­tion solu­tions provider to weigh the options and decide on the most ben­e­fi­cial solution. 

Col­lab­o­ra­tive robots have gained a lot of pop­u­lar­i­ty in the last few years for a good rea­son. Advance­ments in automa­tion tech­nol­o­gy are mak­ing them use­ful in var­i­ous appli­ca­tions, and the afford­able ini­tial invest­ment makes them desir­able across many indus­tries (in and out of man­u­fac­tur­ing). How­ev­er, like any auto­mat­ed solu­tion, it’s best to research and con­sult pro­fes­sion­als before decid­ing if col­lab­o­ra­tive robots are the best solu­tion for your business. 

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