Cobots: your flexible friend

13 March 2023

Suzanne Gill reports on how cobots are being used in industrial environments.

Collaborative robots (cobots) have seen huge growth in the past few years. While barriers to the implementation of industrial robots have often been insurmountable, especially for SMEs – due to the financial risk, coupled with a lack of skills for design, implementation and maintenance – cobots have changed this.

“Flexibility is a key trump card for cobots over traditional six-axis robots,” explained Barry Graham, Collaborative Robot Specialist at Omron. “The ability to work alongside humans and perform complimentary tasks open up new applications where some tasks can be performed by a robot while the more delicate aspects of a task can still be performed by human workers. Added to this is their flexibility. Cobots can be redeployed much faster than traditional robotic systems.”

There is a growing need for more flexible production – high-mix, low-volume – which traditionally has required manual and repetitive tasks to be completed by workers. However, such tasks can create health and safety issues, which is something that cobots can now alleviate. 

“Another application area for cobots – but one which is often overlooked – is the very real human-robot collaboration, where the human and cobot are put to work together on a common task, sharing elements of the task or aiding each other to simplify or increase efficiencies, resulting in an increased level of efficiency and output,” explained Graham. 

Offering examples, he pointed out that workers often need to manually load and unload machines – it’s an area where automation has been slow to take off because conventional fenced robots occupy too much space and restrict layouts. In recent years, cobots have galvanised higher volume operations to improve productivity with safe machine tending, as they can work alongside people without fencing and within a very small footprint. 

Offering a typical example to show how productivity is improved by shared working, Graham said: “A cobot can pick up and offer parts into an assembly to a human who then applies the fixings to secure the offered part. Previously this was a task the human did alone and in doing so would be forced to hold the part to the underside of the fixture, while using the other hand to fix it in place. In this example, with the help of a cobot, the operator is able to work more comfortably and use both hands for the process of fixing the part, resulting in greater efficiencies, higher throughput and a better working environment along with a reduced risk of RSI.”

No barriers
One of the main driving forces behind the adoption of cobots today is the need to fill a role that would typically be filled by a human but is left vacant due to labour shortage challenges. “By implementing cobots, businesses can combat the challenges of a lower human labour force, redeploying human workers to higher value, more fulfilling tasks,” explained Peter Williamson, Managing Director at RARUK Automation.

Williamson believes that there are very few barriers to cobot adoption. “End-users can be easily trained to programme collaborative robots themselves, so programming is not a barrier. Equally, there are very few safety risks associated with cobots, as they are designed to work alongside humans, aside from the usual considerations associated with tasks like welding.” 

Flexibility
The increasing demand for shorter and faster product cycles is driving the need for ever-greater flexibility on the production line. The beauty of cobots is that they can be moved around a facility to help either fill gaps in production lines or take over tasks to enable redeployment of human workers. 

“Cobots also offer a good way of maximising the value of available production space, as they can help to increase the productivity generated within that space and can be moved or stored when not needed,” said Julian Ware, UK & Ireland Sales Manager at ABB Robotics. “The main advantage of cobots is that they can work alongside humans, with no need for protective screens or barriers in applications such as assembly or picking lines. As safety systems such as laser scanner technologies improve, robots and people can safely work in closer quarters than ever before, in the knowledge that the robot can detect the presence and movement of any nearby workers and adapt accordingly.”

Of course, safety is a key concern when it comes to the use of any robot, so design is important. Soft casings and designs with no pinch points can offer greater safety. In addition, if the robot senses an unexpected impact, such as a collision with a co-worker, they need to be able to automatically stop within milliseconds and should only restart once a human has deemed the situation safe. 

“Technology can also be applied to larger or faster moving robots to enable collaborative operation,” explained Ware.  “ABB, for example, has combined software with a laser scanner to prevent contact between a moving robot and a human. Working together, the technologies allow safe collaboration to be achieved without the need for physical fencing, by ensuring that an operator is not present within the robot’s working envelope while it is moving. 

“If an operator is detected in the robot’s working area, the robot will automatically slow down or stop completely to allow the operator to approach safely. As the worker moves away, the robot will restart, returning to full speed and movement for full productivity once it senses that its working envelope is completely clear.” 

Non-collaborative applications
Thanks to their flexibility, rapid set-up times and ease of use, cobots are also finding applications that are not typically collaborative – such as arc welding, reports Paul Richards, Global Customer Coordination – Cobot Market at FANUC Europe.” In 2022, one-third of our cobot sales were for welding applications, typically in companies that manufacture small-to-medium batch sizes.” 

Richards concludes with a word of warning, saying that, although cobots are easy to programme and are able to be used without safety guarding, it is always recommended that new users attend a cobot-specific training course. “Far from being an unnecessary expense, it is a worthwhile investment to ensure that your applications are safe and fully operational in as short a time as possible, maximising return on investment.”


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