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What are ‘cobots’ and how will they revolutionize manufacturing?

Modern manufacturing has been characterized by the rise of the machines. Gradually, robots have replaced human workers on assembly lines, carrying out repetitive tasks that are easy to replicate.

For example, on vehicle production lines a robotic arm can hold a car door in place, while another bolts it to the frame. The automation of repetitive tasks has increased productivity, leading to cost savings and cheaper products.

Until recently, complex assembly tasks or ones that involve a different approach each time (manufacturing customized products for instance) have remained in the hands of human workers.

What has changed? We are witnessing the beginnings of the ‘smart-robot’ revolution. Driven by new smart-technology, the internet of things (IoT), and Industry 4.0, the rise of the ‘cobots’ is imminent.

What are cobots?

To put it simply, ‘cobots’ are robots that cooperate or collaborate with humans. Instead of replacing humans in the manufacturing environment and working independently, they work alongside humans or learn from them.

The late 1990s and early 2000s saw early examples in operation, with General Motors and Ford using them in their automotive assembly lines. They used the term Intelligent Assist Device (IAD) instead of cobotics, but the principle is the same. Ford used cobots alongside humans to load heavy cylinder heads on top of truck engine blocks, reducing the risk of injury to workers. They’ve also had recent success with cobots in their Cologne factory.

It’s estimated that human handling of materials and objects on assembly lines can be reduced by up to 75%, depending on the items being made.

Improvements in sensing technology have allowed manufacturing robots to come out from behind their cages and safety exclusion zones and work directly next to or with human operators. Modern cobots can sense the presence of humans or abnormal objects in their path and are programmed to cease or reverse their motion.

In fact, health and safety improvement is one of the main benefits of these machines, as they can be used for heavy lifting or dangerous tasks previously undertaken by people.

Driven by AI

With the inclusion of AI technology, cobots can learn from their human counterparts. This is a powerful feature that opens up new possibilities for manufacturers.

For instance, a robotic arm and hand that is used to install delicate components can be fitted with pressure sensors that can be guided by a human and ‘taught’ how much pressure to apply to the object to prevent it from breaking.

Another application could be in handling dangerous or toxic materials. The human operator can demonstrate the motion and actions required on a harmless material, while the robot works on the dangerous substance, copying the actions.

Manufacturers that make bespoke or customizable products can also benefit from the learning features and collaborative working of cobots, by teaching them how to do certain tasks while humans do others, thus speeding up the production of items.

Cobot technology is still relatively new. In 2015, only 5% of global robotics sales were cobots.

The overall picture is sure to change over the next few years as more affordable technology becomes available. Small to medium-sized companies will be the most likely to benefit from this emerging technology – they will be more receptive to early adoption as the cost of overhauling operations won’t be prohibitive. This is especially true for companies that make intricate, delicate or bespoke products.

Fully integrated manufacturing workflows

In 2016, Autodesk unveiled a unique example of workflow integration, constructing a generatively designed pavilion from blocks of limestone and other materials which were carved by a combination of CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machining, cobots, and traditional artisan hand carving.

This could be a vision of the future of manufacturing – humans and robots working alongside each other, creating products that have been fully optimized by the evolutionary process of generative design.

What does the future look like?

It’s not an exaggeration to repeat the sentiment of this article’s title – cobots will almost certainly lead to a revolution in manufacturing over the next few years.

How we handle this revolution is up for debate. There are obvious fears that large sections of the workforce will be made redundant by the increased automation, but these fears may be unfounded. For instance, the workers at a Nissan plant in Tennessee were nervous about being laid off when cobots were introduced, but no jobs have been lost, and staff have been very receptive to them. They have realized that these machines are there to help them and the company, rather than replace them.

Maybe science fiction books and movies have made us all a bit paranoid when it comes to ‘the rise of the machines.’ The reality seems to be that when humans work hand-in-hand with robots, the results can be beneficial for both managers and workers alike.

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