News Snippets, Technology

The 411 on collaborative robots

Ask any business owner in Singapore and you’ll know one of the biggest deterrents to starting or expanding a business. It’s not the lack of funds nor the complications of advanced technology. The answer is much simpler – the lack of manpower.

The solution to these labour challenges may therefore lie in automation. But what about pockets of manufacturing where lower production volumes make automation a somewhat less feasible option?

Advanced technologies such as robots come with a hefty initial investment. Not only do they require skilled technicians to program, they require routine maintenance and people who even know how to operate them.

Cobots of the future

According to an article by Advanced Manufacturing, the hassle could possibly be solved through collaborative robots, or simply, cobots. For example, the UR5 cobot from Universal Robots (UR) only requires an hour of installation time, promise to eliminate safety guarding and is user-friendly through their touch-screen interface. With a price point lower than comparably-sized industrial robots, the company predicted that cobots will soon be found in shops everywhere. Their prediction came true and today, almost every robot supplier either produces the UR5 or work towards a better version compared to it.

In a quote published, Stuart Shepherd, regional sales director for UR, said: “Cobots represent an opportunity for automation to be used by more companies and in applications not previously addressed,

“They could be the most significant change in the automation industry since the inventions of PLCs [programmable logic controllers] and indeed robots themselves,” he continued.

One of the key reasons for cobot implementation is their ease compared to industrial robots and their expanding use which now includes food processing, warehouse activities, laboratory and scientific applications. But the main reason is that cobots are are often addressing the serious and pervasive problem outlined in the introduction: the lack of qualified, available talent to work on the factory floor.

Here’s what makes cobots so special

  • Cobots have built-in force sensing, making them suitable for electronics assembly and delicate work.
  • Since they do not require guarding, it is easy to implement them in environments where humans are present.
  • As cobots can be quickly and easily deployed, they are ideal for sudden demand spikes and frequent changeovers, typical in seasonal manufacturers.
  • Cobots can work with and complement the work of larger industrial robots.

Who are using cobots? And what for?

The article mentioned that cobots are likely used by small or medium-sized enterprises because they are typically easier to use and less costly to integrate, easing the process of automation. Of the total demand, it is likely that the materials-handling segment will see the greatest growth as cobots are expected to be used to to package parts, palletise boxes, load conveyors, and more.

Things to keep in mind about cobots

With integrating new technology, employees must be informed that cobots are there to help them with their work, not replace them. The right task must also be assigned to a cobot – when a cobot isn’t being used or appreciated, more likely than not, it’s been deployed on the wrong task.

Cobots are not meant to meet every automation need. It is critical that the right application is identified to allow for a seamless implementation and integration with existing processes. Evaluate the application need to provide the right robotic solution – it it better to approach the issue using a collaborative robot or a traditional industrial robot?

This will largely be determined by the operation’s throughput requirements, along with the weight and complexity of the object or part that needs to be handled.

There’s also another con. Cobots are not typically fast. They are best suited to simple, straightforward pick-and-place applications, and doing so at a slow and steady rate. This might change in future but for now at least, they cannot be expected to move at the same rate as industrial robots.

However, therein lies an advantage – the need for people to safely interact with machinery is real so the cobot’s ability to sense unexpected contact with objects in its work zone is a major win.

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