Cobots, or collaborative robots, can work wonders in delivering production efficiency working alongside humans. Rugged mobile tablets make it easier to access the human-machine interface (HMI) of cobots.
Digitization and automation are accelerating the pace of smart manufacturing with the market segment expected to hit more than USD 260 billion by 2026. Traditionally robots seem to have favored the largest industries first. Smaller manufacturing businesses have had a more challenging time reaping the benefits of automation delivered by robots. But collaborative robots, also known as cobots, are promising to be a game-changer for all manufacturing both large and small. Mobile tablets and devices on the production floor serve as an essential conduit in getting the most out of these sturdy workhorses.
Why cobots now
The growth in computing power, the ready availability of sensors and Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) devices, and mobility on the factory floor are ushering in a manufacturing revolution, Industry 4.0. This new way of manufacturing promises that data drives all decisions and that machines can be programmed to act on data in a near-autonomous fashion. Mobile devices such as rugged tablets provide a platform to access all kinds of manufacturing-related data on the plant floor.
The introduction of cobots is leading experts to label the next round of automation as Industry 5.0, where cobots and humans work alongside in a smart factory.
The cobot’s promise hinges on its very definition, collaboration. Unlike their predecessors who had to be caged and cordoned off to ensure worker safety, cobots are designed to work alongside humans. Cobots can “see” when humans are near and can stop arms from swinging or otherwise injuring humans in any way.
Cobots are also less expensive than their larger cousins — basic cobot arms cost around USD 40,000, making them easier on capital expenditures.
Large robots are typically programmed to do one operation consistently over time and are therefore more suitable for factories where output is high and repetitive. Smaller manufacturing operations, especially in the age of agile customer-focused demand, tend to be high-mix, low-volume. Cobots perform well because they can move from one kind of task to another more easily. A cobot with a mechanical arm, for example, can weld doors on cars all morning and then move to paint jobs in the afternoon. In many cases, cobots are easy enough for employees to reprogram by themselves using hand-guided motions. Like all robots, cobots don’t tire quickly, which ensures consistent performance over time.
While cobot technologies continue to evolve in specialized fields such as computer vision and mechanical sensing, their many advantages promise a growing market. Research and markets forecast global growth for the sector to scale at an impressive 30.37% compound annual rate.
How cobots can improve net productivity
When deciding which tasks to assign to a cobot, plant managers typically pick jobs that meet one of the following criteria: dull, dangerous, dirty, or a combination of these.
This means that before the cobot can be put to work in a cell, the human breaks down a job into specific tasks that can then be assigned to the cobot or the worker. In a car welding job, for example, a cobot can pick up a heavy door frame, the worker can help position it, and another cobot can perform the welding operations. The worker uses a human-machine interface (HMI) often through an attached mobile tablet, to reprogram the cobot as needed. The possibilities for worker-cobot collaborations are endless.
Like robots, cobots help smart factories improve key performance indicators (KPIs) on several fronts, including worker productivity and safety.
Decrease repetitive labor: Cobots efficiently perform repetitive and tedious tasks thus reducing workers’ injuries and workman’s compensation claims. Workers can then concentrate on higher-order tasks. For example, stamping the same machine part day in and day out can get dull and lead to mistakes and potential loss of job interest.
Time saved: In many cases, such a division of labor also leads to time savings. Workers can concentrate on jobs that require more advanced human intervention. They can develop more advanced skills, an additional advantage that might come in especially useful in countries that face labor shortages because of aging populations.
Worker safety: Cobots and robots can be deployed to dangerous areas (where gas leaks can be a hazard, for example) or otherwise inaccessible places. Cobots conducting an inspection of goods in hard-to-reach areas such as under the hood of a car are great examples of deployment in challenging environments.
Every instance of cobot use in smart manufacturing calls for a human-machine interface (HMI) through which the user can figure out the cobot’s next tasks. While cobots often come with their proprietary apps, accessing this HMI will still need an electronic device. A rugged mobile tablet can connect to the cobot and provide a crucial link for programming the next steps. Mobile tablets also provide a monitoring station so that plant managers and workers can view production line status.
Cobots in the future
Advances in HMI technology, material handling (softer pressure for fragile objects), and camera and motion sensors will continue to make cobots better and more efficient. There’s no denying that these more collaborative versions of robots can deliver a competitive advantage to the smart factory by making the rewards of automation more accessible to all. It’s important to remember that cobots are not meant to replace humans but instead attend to the dull, dirty, and dangerous tasks so that humans can perform higher-order work.
Manufacturing is undergoing a reboot with digital transformation through Industry 4.0. This data-centric approach is already accelerating toward the next avatar, Industry 5.0, a version that incorporates cobots into the assembly line. The high growth rate for this market indicates a booming interest in making this version of human-machine collaboration a reality in manufacturing companies large and small.