- What are cobots? Cobots, or collaborative robots, are lightweight automated robot arms that can handle a range of manufacturing, assembly and packing tasks.
- What can a cobot do? A cobot can handle everything from bin picking to palletizing to quality control to welding – and more.
- What are the most common cobot applications? Material handling, assembly and ‘pick and place’ account for 70% of cobot applications. Learn more about different cobot applications here.
Collaborative robots, or cobots, have the power to transform a business’s capabilities, productivity and overheads. More affordable, versatile and compact than traditional industrial robots, they allow even small operations to leverage the power of automation and take their productivity and profitability to the next level. Here is a brief history of the cobot, and how they are transforming manual work for companies across the globe.
Robots have been helping to power industry since the early 1960s, but cobots are a relatively recent innovation. The first industrial robots were put to use at the General Motors New Jersey plant in 1964. Over the next two decades the technology became safer and smarter at pace and, by the 1980s, fast and accurate robotic arms were being used across a range of global industries.
It wasn’t until 1996 that the idea of the ‘cobot’ emerged. And it would be another 12 years until one of the first functional cobots, Universal Robots’ UR5, showed just what the technology was capable of. Now, the sub-sector is on a path of exponential expansion, with the global revenue generated by cobot sales predicted to reach $5.6 billion by 2027.
What’s the difference between industrial robots and cobots?
Traditional robots are designed to take on tasks that are too dangerous, repetitive or inefficient for a person to complete. For example, they can handle large components in an automotive assembly plant that are too bulky or heavy for people to lift into place. But what are cobots?
Cobots applications are incredibly varied. They can take some of the physical strain of repetitive or dangerous tasks and free their colleagues up for more thoughtful work. They’re lighter, meaning they cannot handle extremely heavy goods, but Universal Robots’ cobots still have capacity to handle weights of up to 16kg – more than some employees could safely manage, especially during repetitive lifting tasks.
The most obvious physical difference between the two is their floor space requirements, as traditional robots are significantly bulkier than cobot arms. Most robots must also be surrounded by some sort of safety barrier, which can make your plant or factory feel crowded. As cobots have built-in safety features, the vast majority are deemed safe enough by risk assessors to operate without barriers. You can find out more about cobot safety here.
When it comes to their capabilities, traditional robots tend to have a set purpose. It is possible to change their function, but not without the complexity and expense of enlisting an engineer (or having an in-house engineer on standby) to input new coding. While different components of cobots are suited to different groups of tasks, from picking to packing to palletizing, each machine is incredibly versatile. They can be reprogrammed by a member of your team – some end effectors even allow you to switch between tools multiple times per day.
Common cobot applications
One of the most attractive aspects of cobots is that they are highly versatile and can tackle a wide range of jobs with simple adaptations. For example, cobot grippers are one of the most common attachments, as they can handle a variety of materials, ranging from extremely delicate to as tough as steel. There are different gripper types for a range of tasks, from soft grippers for delicate tasks to magnetic and vacuum grippers for items that are too hazardous or trickier to grab.
There are lots of other ways to use collaborative robots too. They can be used to improve productivity on the assembly line, taking tasks such as soldering, welding and screwing together components off your workers’ to-do lists. Cobots are also incredibly handy when finishing products, as they can sand and polish a range of objects, even if they are a non-standard shape.
Are cobots replacing people?
Some people worry that automating business processes will take jobs away. In reality, automation serves to boost workers’ potential. A survey of 200 CFOs and Financial Directors by BDO found that one in five believe greater automation will actually create jobs.
Workers who are willing to embrace or seek out opportunities to upskill themselves will find new roles where they help to maintain, install and use the new robotics tools in their businesses. Plus, by freeing workers from many of the dirty, dull and dangerous tasks in the factory, they may be able to access better career progression opportunities in areas such as management, engineering or more skilled assembly tasks.
Robotics technology is being used across an increasingly wide array of sectors to automate or support with a broad range of tasks. 93% of manufacturers reported that they had automated a key process in the last year, which can free up six weeks’ worth of time in an average employee’s year. Many companies are using cobots to capitalize on these benefits.
Why should SMEs use cobots?
Even though automation could vastly improve many small businesses, there are a number of reasons that could put off SME owners investing in technology like cobots. Traditional robots are viewed as bulky and time-consuming to install – unfavorable qualities that could be inaccurately projected onto cobots too. In reality, cobots can be installed with little downtime for your business and mounted to maximize floor space.
Another reason why cobots are excellent for SMEs is their versatility. For smaller operations, it’s unlikely to make good business sense to invest in an industrial robot with limited capabilities. A cobot, on the other hand, can be repurposed to plug gaps on your production line.
Smaller companies are unlikely to have a pool of investment funds they can readily tap into, meaning significant purchases that aren’t absolutely critical can be difficult to justify. Cobots, however, are incredibly cost effective. The smart robotic arms can pay for themselves in just a few months, with most people recouping the cobot price within one year. And in the long term, cobots can significantly reduce operational costs and will continue to deliver savings for years to come.
If you’re looking for a cobot that can work alongside your people as their robotic colleague, a Universal Robots cobot could be the ideal solution for your business. Get in touch with one of our cobot experts to discuss your needs today.