The field of collaborative robots is currently the hottest area of interest within the robotics industry, and with good reason. The notion that humans can now work safely, side by side with a robot employee is both intriguing and groundbreaking. The recent interest in this field has paved the way for many informational articles examining collaborative robot technologies that exist in the market today. From a business perspective, however, there is still much to be discovered.
The purpose of this paper is to provide insight into some lingering questions surrounding the business case for collaborative robots and their functionality:
- Which industries are most conducive for collaborative robot operation?
- What features are most important to end users of collaborative robots?
- Will collaborative robots replace traditional industrial robots?
- What are the motivations behind design decisions of collaborative robot manufacturers?
- Are collaborative robots the right choice for my business?
To answer these questions, RIA interviewed decision makers at end user companies in a variety of industries including aerospace, automotive, electronics, life sciences, and plastics. Due to the sensitive nature of their collaborative robot projects, however, these companies have requested to remain anonymous. In order to understand both sides of this industry, RIA also interviewed technical experts from leading robot manufacturers. This two-pronged research approach has generated insights of interest to both end users and robot manufacturers alike.
Automation is growing very rapidly in the aerospace industry, which is leading to many opportunities for robot manufacturers. This industry is also one of the most demanding in terms of robotic payloads. End users in aerospace often find themselves working with large, heavy parts. Because of this, safety-rated monitored stop applications have emerged as one of the most common types of collaborative robot operations. For these types of applications, many end users are making use of traditional, high-payload robots (ABB, KUKA, FANUC, etc.) complete with sensors and safety equipment. In a recent interview with RIA, an aerospace executive described an example of a safety-rated monitored stop collaborative robot application:
“During a robotic process, a worker can step into the workspace and clean or wipe off a part. Then, leave the space and press a button, for the process to resume. The entire system doesn’t have to be shut down completely for the interim cleaning task.”
Some aerospace users are also employing safety-rated soft axis and space limiting operations. This optional feature, available on newer robots, may have different names depending on the robot manufacturer, but the functionality remains the same. Safety-rated software is used to control the robot motion so that restricted space can be more flexibly designed. Case studies have shown that that this saves both floor space and cost in the system design.
Despite the high payload demands, power and force limiting robots (PFLRs) are also finding their niche in this industry. A number of users have already deployed Baxter (Rethink Robotics) and UR (Universal Robots), just not for the heavy-duty industrial applications. The main reason users haven’t adopted as many PFLRs is the lack of available applications, not price:
“Those (PFLRs) are suited for the small pick-and-place type of applications and we just haven’t had that many applications to apply them,” an end user told RIA. “Price is not a primary factor.”
Instead, these robots are deployed for development work and other new areas. For example, Baxter robots are currently being deployed in this industry to test applications to reduce ergonomic issues associated with workers performing repetitive motions. In the past, end users in aerospace were unable to apply as much automation as they wanted because the technology wasn’t advanced enough and systems were too difficult to develop. Now, with offline programming capability and increased machine accuracy, as well as the need to remain competitive in the current economic environment, everything is coming together.
Collaborative robots are certainly finding their place in the aerospace industry, but the need for humans isn’t going away. All of our interview participants were quick to dispel the misconception that collaborative robots are coming to take human jobs. Instead, they suggest, we need to view them for what they are, productivity enhancing tools for humans to use. A leading aerospace company elaborated on this need for collaborative human-robot interaction (HRI):
“We have been very successful in applying robots to small subassembly kinds of operations. But when you start getting into much larger parts, you have a stronger requirement for human and robot interaction, more-so than you might have in an automotive plant. You can’t fully automate all the processes. There are a lot of manual technical operations that still have to be done. So you would like to do those with people nearby and have the capability to know where somebody is and safely operate in that environment. It’s not practical to have all the fencing around.”
The automotive industry has been the single largest driver of the robotics industry worldwide for decades. Today, automotive OEMs, as well as tier suppliers are making use of new collaborative robot technologies. Below we will examine some applications in which automotive users are deploying collaborative robots, as well as their desires for the technology in the future. Similar to the aerospace industry, many current applications of collaborative robots in automotive applications are for ergonomic issues, meaning the robots are often taking over dull, dirty and dangerous jobs. Quality, however, is also of great importance. In a majority of cases, a collaborative robot can control its forces better than a human, and therefore be more consistent.
Traditional robot installations with safety fences are fixed points of production and require significant rescheduling for different automotive models. The relative inflexibility of these traditional cells often leads to increased costs (both in time and money) when users need to move or repurpose them. Power and force limiting robots allow them to move the robot to new positions in 1-2 hours and continue production. Saving on cost of production downtime and reducing the needed floor space are valuable benefits of collaborative robots to some automotive users. Another popular form of HRI is intelligent lift assist robots. Complete with servomotors, they are used for hand guiding large or difficult to handle parts.
The deterrent for some automotive users with regard to newer, highly publicized, PFLR type collaborative robots (Baxter, UR, etc.) has been the cost and availability relative to the overall capability of the machines:
“Light-duty payloads, fairly slow, and pretty expensive,” remarked an automotive OEM. Since the price point and overall capability of these machines are still limited, many end users are waiting to see what each robot manufacturer’s response is to these newer models. “It (collaborative robotics) is a very fascinating, exciting emerging field, but somebody will have to take a larger step for it to be practical for people like us (automotive OEMs) to embrace and start running with it.”
In applications where collaborative robots are already in use, however, human workers have reacted to them positively:
“It’s a boring and dull job that the robot is doing and they (human employees) are happy to look forward to doing other jobs. We’re not destroying jobs. We’re shifting them to more interesting applications.” Currently many of the collaborative PFLRs being installed by automotive users have a limited 10 kg payload. This is a problem for many users, who would like to see that payload ceiling increase to 30 kg at a minimum. Some automotive OEMs are actively supporting research in that direction.
A number of automotive users are also interested in more user-friendly interfaces for controlling and programming collaborative robots. For instance, with Baxter’s LCD face, they would like to see the ability to communicate across assembly lines or with other robots. Coupled with the features above, lightweight, easily portable, and modular collaborative robots that can be assembled in 1-3 hours would be ideal for some automotive users. Additionally, this industry is hungry for open source software, such as the Robot Operating System (ROS).
In many cases, mainstream automotive OEMs are looking for “full-proof” tried and true solutions. The uncertainty surrounding safety standards for collaborative robots is something automotive users are keeping their eye on:
“The industry needs something very prescriptive in terms of what is really allowed, and in the meantime it’s going to be on a slow, case-by-case basis,” according to a leading automotive OEM. “Having real definitive, prescriptive specifications that say this is what the machine does and can do, and you can validate that, I think that’s pretty important.”
When asked about the PFLRs like Rethink’s Baxter and Universal’s UR, they went on to express both the advantages and disadvantages they see with the technology:
“That’s the beauty of a limited-capability machine, because it moves so slow and produces so little force; you don’t have to worry about somebody getting hurt. So that’s one approach. The other approach is that you still have to be efficient in your operations. You have to be able to pick stuff up and be able to move it at a reasonable speed, in a reasonable distance, to actually fit into your overall manufacturing process.”
Read the full paper on collaborative robot industry insights
End User Industry Insights
by Alex Shikany
RIA Director, Market Analysis