The Terminator, Wall-E, Johnny 5, and R2-D2 all have something in common: they are robots. A few of them might be considered cobots if we take the definition directly from the US patent filed in 1997: An apparatus and method for direct physical interaction between a person and a general-purpose manipulator controlled by a computer.
Cobots is a term referring to collaborative robots, which typically work alongside human workers to improve their working environment, enhance their skills, and increase overall productivity.
There are several factors that separate robots from their relatively new cobot siblings. We will take a look at this as we the greater purpose here – how to choose an appropriate cobot for your industry without making a costly mistake. Even economical technologies in the automated sector are significant investments, so making the right choice the first time is imperative.
First, a look at what we can expect from cobots moving forward and how they might be a better option than robots for your business.
The Rise of the Cobot Nation
Don’t look now but cobots are taking the world by storm! No, this is not the plotline of some upcoming action movie. It is the reality posed by the modernization of manufacturing, which has been significantly impacted by modernization.
Robots and cobots alike are powering production around the globe. From heavy industrial processes to small manufacturing shops, these technological wonders are helping workers stay safe, productive, and promoting levels of efficiency no one thought possible.
Cobots and their associated technologies are anticipated to experience extreme market growth in the next five years. Estimates suggest that cobots will grow from 3% of the robotics market to a whopping 34% by 2025. Why? As we mentioned earlier, automated manufacturing continues to grow and cobot tech is improving rapidly.
In one example, cobots are making innovative changes to Amazon’s already ridiculously efficient process. Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos announced earlier this year that one-day shipping would be available to its Prime members during the 2019 holiday season. How is it possible that items are picked, packed, and shipped within hours? Cobots working alongside humans with efficiency quotas make the dream a reality.
I can hear what you are saying now, “Yes, Amazon uses cobots to make miracles happen but my small to medium manufacturing business does not have billions of US dollars available to allocate to this kind of technology.” Don’t leave now! There are options in robotics, including cobots, for any size industry. Many start-up companies offer real-world, non-billionaire levels of robotics and cobots that can make businesses more efficient and safer regardless of budget.
In a more relatable example, a cobot can take on the small, repetitive tasks that often lead to overuse injuries in humans. Small manufacturing businesses like injection molding or machining can benefit by freeing workers from potentially harmful work and allowing them to get into tasks that robots cannot currently do like creative marketing, design, and other productive jobs.
Many people worry about the replacement of humans by cobots. Take the example of the injection molding process from above. In this case, the cobot takes on the repetitive part of the gig (loading and/or unloading the machine). The human does the complex part with its complex brain – inspecting the product for quality.
The worker is retained for her complexity while the robot speeds the process and reduces the chance of injury. This allows the cobot to increase revenue, reduce cost, and ultimately return on investment while the worker keeps her employment and has a better quality of work life.
Why Not Just Hire a Robot?
Part of a successful cobot decision is ensuring that a robot is not a better choice. After all, this is not some sort of “cobots are better than robots – cobots rule” article. Let’s look at the pros and cons of each to help you narrow down the most suitable technology for your needs.
|Robot Pros||Robot Cons|
|· Faster than humans||· High-speed ideal for large operations|
|· More accurate than humans||· Require work cells (for safety) leading to infrastructure modifications|
|· Increased human safety||· Difficult to change once programmed for a process|
|· Return on investment in 12 – 18 months||· Can require advanced understanding of robotics|
|Cobot Pros||Cobot Cons|
|· Can work alongside humans (no work cells)||· Slower working speed than most robots due to close interactions with humans|
|· Typically do not require infrastructure modifications||· Could require safety modifications based on risk assessments|
|· Easily programmable and amenable to changes||· Lower payload and reach than most industrial robots|
|· Return on investment in less than 12 months due to lower startup costs and maintenance||· Collaborative nature limits worker reduction or job shift|
There are definitive uses for both industrial and collaborative robots. It is important to consider the pros and cons of each while deciding which is best for your application.
Questions to Ask Yourself
If you used the pros and cons list above to narrow your choice down to a friendly, collaborative robot, then it is time to pare the cobots down to one winner. There are six primary areas that you need to work through to ensure you choose the right cobot the first time.
- How much cobot can I afford?
Overreaching your budget can be disastrous. If a cobot is not making your business economically prosperous, it is not worth the investment. Consider options like leasing a cobot, finding one in your budget, or gaining good financing.
- Is this cobot beneficial to my business?
This one seems obvious but many small manufacturers assume that “keeping up with the Joneses” will allow them to join the big leagues. Not true. If the cobot does not perform tasks that reduce costs, there will be no return on investment.
- Is my staff capable of working with a cobot?
This does not mean your workers need to make friends and invite your new cobot to the holiday party. Are your workers able to program, utilize, and work alongside technology like this? If not, does the cobot vendor offer training or assistance?
- Does the cobot fit the function of your business?
Similar to #2, this one is a little bit of common sense. Do not drastically change what you do or produce for the sake of bringing a cobot into the workspace. Look around for the right fit for your industry.
- Does the cobot fit in?
Can it operate in your space as is or will you need to modify your warehouse? Does it move around? Buying a cobot that doesn’t fit your facilities will result in a costly reduction in productivity and could lead to exorbitant startup costs.
- Is the cobot safe for your application?
Cobots offer the convenience of working alongside human employees. However, just because they are designed for this does not mean they require no safety protocols. Can you assure the safety of your employees while working with a cobot in the application you intend? Search for a cobot that fits your ability to assess and implement appropriate precautions.
The world of robotics, while not new, can be overwhelming given the breakneck speed of advancement. A drastic reduction in the cost of the technology combined with the data-driven understanding of its ability to improve working conditions, efficiency, and productivity make cobots a must-have for many manufacturers.
Taking the time to consider your options is vital to experiencing a positive, substantial return on investment. It is not a matter of if you need to introduce a cobot to your business, it is which one is the best choice.