Collaborative robots (also called co-bots) are designed to work alongside human workers, assisting them with a variety of tasks. Because co-bots are affordable, highly adaptable, and almost plug-and-play, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are eager to adopt this technology, and some analysts expect this segment will see massive growth in the next few years.
There are many reasons for the emergence of collaborative robots: companies are using them because they can be placed alongside humans in small-spaced electronics assembly lines, because they are affordable and easily trainable, and because they are flexible to handle short runs, repetitive and boring jobs, and ergonomically challenging tasks.
Industrial robots are caged to keep humans safe and out of harm’s way. Service robots are meant to safely leave the cage while doing tasks for humans. Collaborative robots come in all sizes and shapes and have integrated sensors and soft and rounded surfaces for safety purposes and to reduce the risk of impact, pinching and crushing. The biggest safety feature of collaborative robots is their force-limited joints, which are designed to sense forces due to impact and quickly react.
Most professional service robots are collaborative by design, hence co-bots aren’t just for SMEs or for manufacturing use. Offices, homes, labs, warehouses, farms, distribution centers, hospitals and healthcare facilities are all enabling service robots to help them do their jobs better. The market is open-ended but current uses for co-bots include machine tending, material handling, assembly tasks and packaging. They also pick and place, count, and inspect. As more co-bots are deployed, more uses will be discovered.
Huge Growth Potential
In a human-machine study conducted by MIT researchers at a BMW factory, it was shown that teams made of humans and robots collaborating efficiently can be more productive than teams made of either humans or robots alone. Also, the cooperative process reduced human idle time by 85 percent.
At present, sales of collaborative robots represent 5 percent of the overall robot market but with strong growth expectations for the future. In fact, the market acceptance of collaborative robots and also drones are expected to be significant drivers in non-industrial robotic growth. This non-industrial growth will be split and different for differing aspects of the service robotics marketplace but as Tractica, a U.S. research firm, projects, growth will be significant, exponential, and near-term.
The collaborative robotics sector is expected to increase roughly tenfold between 2015 and 2020, reaching over US $1 billion from approximately $95 million in 2014. Some analysts suggest more rapid growth: collaborative lightweight robots will become the top seller in the industry in about two years, selling hundreds of thousands and with prices falling to the $15,000 to $20,000 level. TechNavio, a British market research firm, forecasts the global collaborative robots market to grow at a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 50.88 percent to 2019.
Companies and their COBOTS
Collaborative robots are gaining popularity because sensors and computer power have become so cheap that they are driving down the cost of robots and making them more available to businesses of all sizes. Also enticing is their ease-of-use: co-bots are easier to train and deploy than big industrial robots. Initially driving this movement was the European Union SME Robot program started in 2005 with a goal of increasing worker productivity so that labor-intensive tasks wouldn’t be off-shored. More recently the movement has a rapid proliferation of startups and established companies offering co-bots for a wide range of applications.
Universal Robots is a Danish startup whose one-armed, 6-axis robots have had significant success in the marketplace. At this time they are the market leader producing at an annual run-rate of 5,000+ co-bots. They recently added a third robot to their product line and now have over 200 integrators and distributors around the world and thousands of sold robots at work in SME and larger factories.
All three of their robots are identical except in size and carry. The UR3, UR5 and UR10 can carry up to 3, 5, and 10 kilograms of load respectively). The UR3 can perform tasks like mounting of small objects, gluing, screwing (it can tighten while applying the correct torque), operating tools, soldering, and painting. It has a reach radius of 500 mm (19.7 in), allowing it to be deployed in tight spaces.
Universal Robots has found another and perhaps bigger use of co-bots through their work with automaker BMW, which already has 7,500 industrial robots at work in their factories. BMW has been testing UR robots alongside factory workers who had been tasked with ergonomically challenging assignments. The robots were quickly trained for those tasks and performed perfectly while freeing up the worker to do even more of what he or she was doing. The results of the tests turned out so well that a BMW executive said that it was likely that BMW would soon double or even triple their number of robots by the use of these low-cost, portable, easy-to-program co-bots.
With success stories like this, it’s easy to see why test-equipment company Teradyne agreed to pay $350 million to acquire Universal Robots in May 2015.
What’s Next for Co-Bots
As robots move from behind fixed and caged locations to work stations alongside human workers—and as they move from heavy-duty industrial applications to providing assistance and augmenting skills—more and more companies will start seeing the rising tide of change and they’ll want in (or said another way, they don’t want to be left out). Thus companies of all types and sizes are finding strategic reasons to acquire or invest in robotics and robotic ventures to add to their arsenal of products and services.
Universal Robots has a big head start. Next year will likely see them continue to lead but Kuka, ABB, and FANUC will begin to make inroads and experiment with different prices. By the beginning of 2017, the competition will become even more intense as the number of co-bots sold approaches 15,000 units, with $500 million in sales. It’s still too early in the evolution of co-bots for provider consolidation, but some systems are sure to be preferred because of their flexibility, ease of training, and support base.
The SME marketplace is huge: 6 million companies worldwide and almost 70 percent of the world’s manufacturing. A few low-cost plug-and-play robotic tools can easily fit into the manufacturing process in most of these companies, which is why it is easy to imagine that co-bots could be on track to sell hundreds of thousands of units beginning as early as 2018.
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