Manufacturing AUTOMATION

Features Robotics Thought Leaders
Is a collaborative robot right for your application?


Photo: TM Robotics

On robotic automation in general, Jay Baron, CEO of the Centre for Automotive Research says, “Without this automation, our factories would have been obsolete a long time ago. Automation is necessary for safety, quality and productivity.”

This reflects the strong pressure that companies face to implement technology in order to keep up with, or exceed, the competition.

As more companies are turning to robotic automation to get ahead, now is the time to take stock, assess the application and make informed business decisions. Automating manufacturing processes is a complex issue without a one-size-fits-all solution.

Some processes call for cobots, a breed of robots designed to share a workspace with human workers, but some really are more suited to traditional industrial robots.

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The global collaborative robot (cobot) market is projected to grow from $175 million in 2016, to $3.8 billion by 2021. Here’s why manufacturers really need to understand the facts before they jump into implementing a cobot.

Collaborative robots

The term cobot has been coined to represent an unguarded, easy-to-integrate collection of robots that typically carry out repetitive or unsafe tasks while the human workforce performs higher-value manual tasks up or downstream. They are flexible, able to carry out a variety of different tasks and work alongside humans rather than replacing them.

Cobots present a viable automation solution for small and medium-sized businesses as they often have fewer up-front costs, at least at first glance.

The robotics industry does not acknowledge cobots as a separate entity, but instead defines industrial safety standards for when humans work collaboratively with robots on the same production floor.

This is an important distinction, as new robotics implementers may assume that any cobot is automatically safe for use next to humans, when, in fact, this can only be determined by thorough risk assessment.

Some plant managers may be also surprised to discover that they need expensive fencing if risk wasn’t appropriately forecasted initially.

As a result of risk assessment findings, added safety features can result in very low operating speeds or multiple stops for a cobot.

Industrial robots

Industrial robots are automatically controlled and are programmable in three or more axes and they can automate a broad range of processes unattended.

Multiple industrial robots can be integrated for a fully automated production line, meaning they can handle applications that are not conducive to humans at speed, removing operators from unsafe or unclean environments.

Improvements in safety technology is now allowing industrial robots to be used in collaborative operations, providing many of the same benefits that a cobot brings, along with increased speed and accuracy.

Of course, this collaboration can only be implemented after the appropriate risk assessment – but that is no different than when choosing a cobot.

Almost any robot is capable of collaborative operation with the appropriate safety mechanisms in place.

Defining collaboration

It’s really the application that defines the ability for human and machine to collaborate.

In February 2016, the technical standard ISO/TS 15066 was published to provide safety guidelines for the use of robots in collaborative applications, including force guidelines, maximum allowable robot power and speed, without discriminating against a certain type of robot.

The huge growth in the collaborative robot market represents the view that cobots can be an ideal first step towards automated processes. If the application doesn’t require safety guarding, then the initial investment is low.

However, as applications evolve, multiple cobots may soon be required for scalability, and the cost of the additional equipment and additional human workforce may soon exceed the cost of an industrial robot, and you will still lack speed and the benefit of unattended production.

Business owners must assess the application and the needs of their business’ future carefully before making their decision and consider one important question – is a cobot right for you?

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Nigel Smith is CEO of TM Robotics, a robotics company in partnership with Toshiba Machine.

This article originally appeared in the September 2020 editions of Robotics Insider and Manufacturing AUTOMATION.