Robots that can work side by side with humans are changing the way manufacturing is done.
Collaborative robots could soon be a common sight in Australian and New Zealand factories as robots increasingly move out from behind the cage and take their place alongside workers.
Known as cobots, these robots are machines designed to interact with human employees in close working quarters. For example, during the manufacturing process, robots can undertake the physical and repetitive labour while its human counterpart simultaneously performs quality control inspections.
By collaborating with human workers, robots can provide a way to combine the benefits of automation with those of human ingenuity and handcraft. In most cases it results in a faster, cheaper and more flexible work approach – with cobots able to reduce worker idle time by more than 85%.1
Unlike their big industrial brothers working behind cages at automotive plants and other big assembly lines, collaborative robots can easily be moved or repurposed to new workstations in the factory to carry out different tasks, helping to reduce costs related to downtime. In the future, human and robot teammates could even swap tasks to learn each other’s preferences, resulting in a process that gets the job done more quickly.
Until relatively recently, the enthusiasm for this new collaborative approach has been hampered by concerns about man and machine working in such close proximity. This was in part due to safety concerns, outdated regulations and product misconceptions. However, during the past two years, significant headway has been made on all of these fronts.
The rise of the cobot
Collaborative robots aren’t the first technology to deal with largely unfounded concerns around safety. Looking back through history, fundamental technology shifts have repeatedly found similar challenges.
When the first automobiles began travelling almost at walking pace along roads that were not as developed as they are today, Britain introduced the Red Flag Act, requiring a man bearing a red flag to walk in front of every vehicle to ensure that no passers-by might be injured by this marvellous but dangerous new development in the history of mobility.
Clearly, however, it was neither practical nor feasible on a large scale to deploy such flag bearers. And if no-one had dared to dispense with them, the automobile would quite possibly never have progressed beyond the status of a rich man’s toy – despite the manifest need for mobility.
We have seen similar developments and innovation in the industrial robotics industry. It has now been 60 years since the father of modern industrial automation, George Devol, unveiled his vision of a robotic workplace, patenting the first true digital industrial robot, the Unimate, in 1954.2
Today, the rise of the cobot is proving a real game changer for the industry. Right now, cobots are redrawing the robot landscape that has existed to date and are ushering in a new way of working.
The demand for flexible and cost-effective robotic solutions has carved out a place for collaborative robots on the factory floor. However, building a safe robot is critical to the success of cobots; especially if they are going to operate in close quarters with human employees. As a result, the robotics industry globally is committed to developing new standards that include the appropriate regulations for collaborative lightweight robots to ensure businesses gain the maximum value from the technology.
Collaborative robotics has created an environment where human employees can now work safely alongside their robot colleagues.
Advanced safety features, such as using sensors to detect an opposing force or obstruction to the robot’s line of movement, ensure robots can function safely and efficiently without putting their human colleagues at risk. Cobots can also operate in a reduced mode when a human colleague enters the work cell, and then resume to full speed when they leave again – alleviating safety concerns.
In a collision, collaborative robots can deliver less force than the 150 N regulatory limit (EN ISO 13850), so depending on the application, the robot may be able to operate without an enclosure.
By reducing, or in most cases eliminating, the need for safety guarding, robotic and human employees are now able to work side by side, sharing the load of work tasks together. This also means there is often no need to invest in safety shielding and devices which need constant maintenance, providing a friendlier and more flexible work environment. Of course, end effectors and other environmental conditions could create a hazard, and a risk assessment should be done with any robotic industrial motion control application.
Collaborative robots can also help to significantly reduce the risk of employee injury. Manufacturing roles consist of labour-intensive manual tasks that can potentially be highly dangerous for employees; however, the reality is that for many workers these tasks will make up a large part of their working day.
Injuries related to both repetitive manual handling and workplace accidents cost the Australian economy millions of dollars every year. Packing and production lines in smaller operations are particularly at risk. However, in contrast to traditional industrial robots in the market, small and lightweight robots can work collaboratively with staff and take over the more repetitive and dangerous jobs, reducing the risk of staff being seriously injured while at work.
Safety in manufacturing is paramount and organisations in countries like Australia are working hard to maintain safe environments. Today, the Australian manufacturing industry is currently below the country’s average for workplace fatalities.3
For cobots to gain a foothold on the factory floor, it is critical that they maintain a high level of safety. Fortunately, new technological developments have helped this, and collaborative robots are now being considered a safe automation technology option for manufacturers of all sizes.
Giving SMEs the opportunity to grow
Collaborative robots are dramatically increasing productivity at small or medium-sized companies, providing them with the flexibility they need to grow and transform their business.
Results have shown that workplaces that encourage collaboration between humans and robots are experiencing higher levels of productivity than teams that simply consist of either humans or robots alone. This increased efficiency is creating strong growth opportunities for business and providing those, particularly in the SME sector, with the chance to drive cost down and revenue up.
Collaborative work approaches are also helping organisations maintain competitiveness in today’s global business landscape, without forcing them to take on a massive financial risk.
Making workers more productive, not unemployable
Despite the benefits of collaborative robots, there is still a strong perception within the workplace that cobots are actually going to take human jobs.
This view is completely misguided, as the need for humans on the factory floor is not going to go away. While collaborative robots are able to take away some of the more repetitive and mundane jobs from their human colleagues, they don’t have the ability to fulfil the critical roles that humans play when it comes to completing the more nuanced tasks.
Collaborative robots need to be viewed by their human teammates as a tool that can help them drive efficiency – not a technology that is going to lead to job cuts.
Today, collaborative robotics is providing human workers with the opportunity to expand their job role by freeing them up to perform more skilled activities that are more interesting and challenging.
Collaborative robots in action
Volkswagen is one company which has integrated collaborative robots at its engine production plant in Salzgitter, Germany. The collaborative robots work alongside Volkswagen staff in the cylinder head assembly section, without any safety guards, to handle delicate glow plugs. With an area of 2,800,000 square metres, Volkswagen’s Salzgitter plant is one of the largest engine production plants in the world, with some 6000 employees manufacturing approximately 7000 petrol and diesel engines in over 370 variants every day.
The automotive company uses its cobots as assistants to human workers during manufacturing, often taking charge of ergonomically unfavourable work to place the glow plugs in difficult-to-reach holes in the cylinder heads. An employee then takes over from its robotic coworker, checking placement, fixing the plug and insulating the cylinder head.
The close proximity to the cobot means the employee can keep a constant watch over the assembly process and quickly intervene if necessary. Volkswagen spent more than two years working on the project to perfect the collaborative working approach.
History has shown that industrial robotics can quickly revolutionise manufacturing and production, once initial business concerns are eased. The original industrial robots helped turn Japan into an automotive and electronics superpower in the 1960s and 70s, once they were able to see past initial concerns about having robots on the factory floor.
By embracing cobots today, both large and small manufacturers could derive a similar first-mover advantage. It has already been proven that pairing man and machine will deliver significant benefits to businesses.
Importantly, now that we have addressed these initial hesitancies, we now have the freedom to pursue even greater collaborative opportunities – making the working relationship more productive and innovative.
For more information on SCOTT’s COBOT range, click here
By Shermine Gotfredsen, General Manager, APAC, Universal Robots