Getting Started with Cobots: What to look for - Ur Cobots

It’s been 10 years since collaborative robots appeared on the manufacturing scene. First viewed as a lab experiment by global manufacturers that would buy one or two, send them off to their innovation centers for testing never to be seen on the production floor, cobots now are hard at work in many sectors all around the world.

Getting Started with Cobots: What to look for - Ur Cobots
Getting Started with Cobots: What to look for - Ur Cobots

There are many different applications for collaborativerobots or cobots in manufacturing that make a significant impact within your business. Cobots help you automate tasks that are tedious or inefficient in human hands, offer greater consistency of output and close labor gaps when recruitment can’t fill. If you are interested in using cobots within your business, there are some important things to know before getting started.

Cobots, or collaborative robots, are versatile pieces of machinery that are designed to work alongside their human colleagues. While robotics in manufacturing is not a new concept, cobots only emerged in the early 2010s. Now, through the power of intuitive software and a varied suite of end effectors, cobot applications are becoming more numerous and varied with each passing year.

For modest-sized businesses, cobots are a more cost-effective way to bring automation onto the factory floor. Business owners may dream of a partially or fully-automated production line that slashes downtime and boosts productivity. Or you may be looking for a solution that will remove recruitment worries and allow you to develop your existing staff. Cobots are the answer.

Transforming the factory with cobots

Cobots are a far cry from industrial robots. The latter are better suited to environments with high production volumes, meaning it makes financial sense to have a dedicated machine for one task. Cobots, meanwhile, adapt to meet a business’s evolving needs, as often as you like. For smaller operations, who may not be able to justify the cost of one machine that can only cover one lower volume task, they are an excellent solution.

These robotic arms handle everything from picking, packing, welding, machine tending and palletizing to more advanced applications such as bin picking, which use machine vision to identify correct or defective objects and pick and place printed circuit board (PCB) assembly. They also have a much smaller footprint and will fit into even the smallest gaps on the factory floor.

Glidewell Laboratories optimizes its production by 9 hours with collaborative robot.
Glidewell Laboratories optimizes its production by 9 hours with collaborative robot.

Types of cobots

There are two distinct parts of a cobot that change its function: the size of the arm itself and the end effectors, or end of arm tooling (EOAT), used. Each model of cobot arm will have a different ‘payload’ (the weight it can safely handle), degree of flexibility and footprint. While cobots are designed to have many different functions, it’s important to choose a model that’s suitable for the type of jobs you’d like it to handle. Opting for a tabletop cobot like the UR3e will work best for tasks such as painting, screwing or assembling small, lightweight products, while a floor-mounted arm, such as the UR10e or UR16e, with a higher payload will be better suited to material handling and palletizing.

Switching out the end effector will transform your cobot into an entirely different machine. Swapping the EOAT and running a different piece of software alters its application, adapting the cobots from a dexterous picking tool to a robotic welding assistant. There are hundreds of models of end effectors, from vacuum or magnetic grippers to polishing and sanding tools to clamps and screwdrivers. The best bit? Your internal staff can be trained in a matter of days on how to seamlessly switch between cobot functions.

How cobots fit into your business

If you’re new to cobots, you might find it hard to work out where they’ll fit on your factory floor. Imagine your factory processes simply need an operator to move items from one station or part of the production line to the next. Your employees are likely to spend lots of time idly standing and waiting, which is financially inefficient, demoralizing and unproductive.

A Universal Robots client that produces dental crowns has been able to reduce its production cycle time from 27 to 18 hours by installing cobots to tend its machines. It has also freed up its two milling operators from an incredibly tedious and inefficient task. These employees can now take on a supervisory role, overseeing multiple machines, or move into a more skilled area of the business.

Cobots also offer predictability that stabilizes costs and allows small businesses with fragile margins to protect their profits. If your business has been, or is being hit by labor shortages, a cobot will stop you wasting money on costly temporary employees. Or if you’re finding that downtime on your production line is limiting your growth potential, a cobot is capable of running 24/7 to boost your capacity.

Universal Robots performing injection molding tasks
Universal Robots performing injection molding tasks

Better utilizing human resources

A common misconception about automation is that its eventual aim is to replace the people working in factories. But cobots could be the key to unlocking more from your employees, as it ensures their skills are not wasted on repetitive and dull tasks. Your robotic arm(s) will handle tasks such as moving or packing parts, tending to a CNC machine, inserting screws or loading and unloading a rotary indexing table. Your people, meanwhile, will be enabled to take on the next part of their professional careers by learning new skills or redeploying to higher value activities.

While the pace of innovation around cobots is staggering, there are still areas where robotic arms cannot match humans. Tasks that require significant dexterity, human judgement or true craftsmanship are outside of cobots’ skillsets (for now). Instead, they are designed to be the steady workhorses of your factory, covering the blister-inducing, back-breaking and mind-numbing tasks that no person would volunteer for. Together, cobots and human colleagues will make your workforce even stronger.

Giving people the opportunity to complete more interesting tasks is likely to benefit both you and your employees. A study conducted by McKinsey found that fulfilled workers are six times more likely to want to stay in their role, four times healthier and 1.5 times more likely to want to go the extra mile for their employer. And for employers, this will minimize the costly task of recruitment.

If you’d like to discuss how a cobot could transform your business, get in touch with one of our experts today.

Jim Lawton

Experienced in both start-up and Fortune 500 environments, Jim’s career has focused on building organizations that give manufacturers new and effective ways to capitalize on the intersection of technology and business performance. From early days in e-commerce market and supply chain optimization to supplier risk management, Jim has been on the leading edge of innovation that changes what world-class manufacturing looks like. Since 2013, Jim has focused on the opportunity for manufacturers to harness advanced automation and collaborative robots to transform their operations and how the world thinks about work. He joined Universal Robots in 2018 and today leads the product and applications management of the company’s advanced collaborative robots to manufacturers and distributors all over the world. Jim holds a BS in Electrical Engineering from Tufts University, an MS in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT and an MBA from MIT’s Sloan School of Management, where he was an inaugural Fellow in the MIT Leaders for Global Operations (LGO) program.

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