ROBOTS COME TO SMALL WORKSHOPS: HOW COBOTS ARE HELPING SMES
Cobots are not just for large manufacturers or high-tech industries. They are also suitable for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). K.A. Gerardino explains how cobots will affect the future of SMEs.
Have you ever envisioned having a robotic assistant to facilitate your work? A robot that can collaborate with you, not compete with you, and that can adjust to your needs and preferences? Cobots, or collaborative robots, are the latest trend in robotics and automation. They are designed to work alongside humans in a shared space, or where humans and robots are in close proximity. Cobots are not just for large manufacturers or high-tech industries. They are also suitable for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). But how will cobots affect the future of SMEs? Will they destroy jobs or help them survive and thrive?
Cobots were first introduced in 2008 and represent a relatively new category of industrial robots. In contrast to traditional robots, which must be shielded from the human workspace by a security fence, cobots were developed to work safely with people. Users also need less time and money to program an application with these ‘helper robots. In addition, cobots can be easily moved from one location to another to work on different tasks, whereas conventional industrial robots must stay in one location and can normally only be used for a specific task within the robot cell. Cobots therefore provide much greater flexibility. The diverse tasks they can handle vary from simple pick-and-place applications for parts handling, sorting, and palletizing, through to machine assembly, order picking, packaging, and testing. They can help to apply adhesive and sealants, assemble or disassemble parts, measure, test, check and take over screwing operations. This results in significant benefits for the employees, who no longer have to carry out monotonous, physically demanding or even dangerous work, but will receive support with precision work and can concentrate on their core abilities.
The global cobots market is expected to grow at a staggering rate of 32.0% annually from 2023 to 2030, according to Grand View Research. One of the main drivers of this growth is the increasing adoption of cobots by small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which benefit from their flexibility, adaptability, and user-friendliness.
Another factor that contributes to the growth of the cobots market is the technological innovation in the industry. The integration of artificial intelligence and machine learning in cobots enables them to learn from their environment and improve their performance. Moreover, the emergence of 5G technology, such as the industrial grade 5G wireless network developed by Nokia Corporation, offers low-latency connectivity that enhances robotic automation and increases the productivity, quality, and efficiency of the manufacturing processes.
Cobots also have a positive impact on the safety and quality of industrial processes. They reduce the risk of accidents and injuries at workplaces, and improve the accuracy and consistency of the products. Cobots are widely used in various applications, such as electronics, automotive, logistics, machine tooling, packaging, and assembling. They are expected to transform the landscape of the cobot market in the near future.
The logistics sector is another area where cobots have a high demand. Many retailers and e-commerce companies are investing in robotic technologies to manage their logistics and supply chain activities. They use cobots to assist their workforce in warehouses, such as sorting, picking, packing, and delivering goods. The rising demand for cobots in the logistics sector will create lucrative opportunities for the cobots market in the coming years.
Cobots Enhance Human Capabilities in SMEs
If small and medium-sized production companies want to keep up with constant economic growth internationally, they need to invest more in automation for cost reasons alone. However, classic industrial robotics will not be the solution in many areas. This technology requires a high investment but is not sufficiently flexible for current and future needs. Traditional production lines are designed for manufacturing large numbers of products. However, product lifecycles are getting shorter.
For example, in the 1970s, the average product lifecycle of a vehicle was eight years. Today, car models often get their first modifications after just two to three years. In almost all industries, the intervals between new product developments are shortening and many of them must respond to new trends after a relatively short time. Production and automation must adapt to this scenario and cobots can help with this. Cobots are designed to be flexible, adaptable, and intuitive to use, and they can enhance human capabilities and improve productivity. They are not meant to replace humans, but to complement them.
Emerson Professional Tools is a leading manufacturer of press tools for building sanitary technology. The company has been producing high-quality products for connecting sanitary, water and gas pipes in buildings for over 35 years. To ensure reliable and stable manufacturing, the company uses a Cobot CRX-10iA/L from FANUC on a 5-axis CNC lathe since the beginning of 2021. This is an example of how cobots work alongside humans and improve their performance.
The Cobot CRX-10iA/L is a collaborative robot that can work with humans in a shared workspace without the need for elaborate safety devices. It is compact, easy to install, and reasonably priced. It also has sensitive sensors that trigger an immediate safety stop when touched by a human body, as well as anti-trap protection and a soft rubber skin. These features make the cobot safe and user-friendly for machine operators.
The cobot increases the machine availability to up to 96 percent, which means more productivity, quality, and efficiency for the manufacturing processes. The cobot can handle various diameters of press tools and press jaws, from 12 mm to 108 mm (4 inches). It can also adapt to different tasks and processes, such as loading, unloading, turning, and milling.
The story of Emerson Professional Tools shows how cobots can enhance human capabilities in various industries and applications. Cobots are not only a replacement for human workers, but also a valuable partner that can help them achieve better results.
Another example is FMO Surface, a family-owned company that specializes in finishing plastic surfaces. The company uses various KUKA robots to automate its processes, such as palletizing, tending a laser system, turning over, measuring, and laser-marking plastic parts. The latest addition to the robot portfolio is the LBR iisy, a collaborative robot that can work with humans in a shared workspace.
The LBR iisy is a flexible, adaptable, and user-friendly cobot that can be easily programmed by novice users. Bastian Fest, the Managing Director of FMO Surface, was impressed by the advantages of the cobot when he saw it at a trade fair in Kassel. He decided to purchase it online via the KUKA Marketplace, without having a specific application in mind. “The LBR iisy combines several factors that we require: flexibility, ease of programming and suitability for collaborative operation. That is why we purchased it, without knowing exactly where we wanted to use it,” says Fest.
The cobot was delivered in March 2022 and has been integrated into the production line. It can handle different tasks and processes, such as loading, unloading, sorting, and inspecting plastic parts. It can also interact with humans safely and smoothly, thanks to its sensitive sensors, soft skin, and anti-trap protection. The cobot helps to increase the productivity, quality, and efficiency of the manufacturing processes, as well as to overcome the shortage of skilled workers. The LBR iisy is an example of how cobots can work with humans and improve their performance.
Global Robotics Trends
New trends in robotics attract users from SMEs to global OEMs. In fact, the International Federation of Robotics analyzes the top 5 trends shaping robotics and automation.
Energy efficiency is key to improving companies’ competitiveness amid rising energy costs. The adoption of robotics helps in many ways to lower energy consumption in manufacturing. Compared to traditional assembly lines, considerable energy savings can be achieved through reduced heating. At the same time, robots work at high speed thus increasing production rates so that manufacturing becomes more time- and energy-efficient.
Today’s robots are designed to consume less energy, which leads to lower operating costs. To meet sustainability targets for their production, companies use industrial robots equipped with energy-saving technology: robot controls are able to convert kinetic energy into electricity, for example, and feed it back into the power grid. This technology significantly reduces the energy required to run a robot. Another feature is the smart power-saving mode that controls the robot’s energy supply on-demand throughout the workday. Since industrial facilities need to monitor their energy consumption even today, such connected power sensors are likely to become an industry standard for robotic solutions.
Resilience has become an important driver for reshoring in various industries: Car manufacturers e.g. invest heavily in short supply lines to bring processes closer to their customers. These manufacturers use robot automation to manufacture powerful batteries cost-effectively and in large quantities to support their electric vehicle projects. These investments make the shipment of heavy batteries redundant. This is important as more and more logistics companies refuse to ship batteries for safety reasons.
Relocating microchip production back to the US and Europe is another reshoring trend. Since most industrial products nowadays require a semiconductor chip to function, their supply close to the customer is crucial. Robots play a vital role in chip manufacturing, as they live up to the extreme requirements of precision. Specifically designed robots automate the silicon wafer fabrication, take over cleaning and cleansing tasks or test integrated circuits. Recent examples of reshoring are Intel’s new chip factories in Ohio or the recently announced chip plant in the Saarland region of Germany run by chipmaker Wolfspeed and automotive supplier ZF.
Robots Easier to Use
Robot programming has become easier and more accessible to non-experts. Providers of software-driven automation platforms support companies, letting users manage industrial robots with no prior programming experience. Original equipment manufacturers work hand-in-hand with low-code or even no-code technology partners that allow users of all skill levels to program a robot.
The easy-to-use software paired with an intuitive user experience replaces extensive robotics programming and opens up new robotics automation opportunities: Software start-ups are entering this market with specialized solutions for the needs of small and medium-sized companies. For example: a traditional heavy-weight industrial robot can be equipped with sensors and new software that allows collaborative setup operation. This makes it easy for workers to adjust heavy machinery to different tasks. Companies will thus get the best of both worlds: robust and precise industrial robot hardware and state-of-the-art cobot software.
Easy-to-use programming interfaces, that allow customers to set up the robots themselves, also drive the emerging new segment of low-cost robotics. Many new customers reacted to the pandemic in 2020 by trying out robotic solutions. Robot suppliers acknowledged this demand: Easy setup and installation, for instance, with pre-configured software to handle grippers, sensors or controllers support lower-cost robot deployment. Such robots are often sold through web shops and program routines for various applications are downloadable from an app store.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Digital Automation
Propelled by advances in digital technologies, robot suppliers and system integrators offer new applications and improve existing ones regarding speed and quality. Connected robots are transforming manufacturing. Robots will increasingly operate as part of a connected digital ecosystem: Cloud Computing, Big Data Analytics or 5G mobile networks provide the technological base for optimized performance. The 5G standard will enable fully digitalized production, making cables on the shopfloor obsolete.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) holds great potential for robotics, enabling a range of benefits in manufacturing. The main aim of using AI in robotics is to better manage variability and unpredictability in the external environment, either in real-time, or off-line. This makes AI-supporting machine learning play an increasing role in software offerings where running systems benefit, for example with optimized processes, predictive maintenance, or vision-based gripping.
This technology helps manufacturers, logistics providers and retailers dealing with frequently changing products, orders, and stock. The greater the variability and unpredictability of the environment, the more likely it is that AI algorithms will provide a cost-effective and fast solution – for example, for manufacturers or wholesalers dealing with millions of different products that change on a regular basis. AI is also useful in environments in which mobile robots need to distinguish between the objects or people they encounter and respond differently.
Second Life for Industrial Robots
Since an industrial robot has a service lifetime of up to thirty years, new tech equipment is a great opportunity to give old robots a “second life.” Industrial robot manufacturers like ABB, Fanuc, KUKA, Stäubli or Yaskawa run specialized repair centers close to their customers to refurbish or upgrade used units in a resource-efficient way. This prepare-to-repair strategy for robot manufacturers and their customers also saves costs and resources. To offer long-term repair to customers is an important contribution to the circular economy.
Key Companies in the Cobot Industry
The major companies operating in the collaborative robots industry are inclined to introduce innovative offerings to gain a competitive edge in the market. Some of the major companies operating in the collaborative robots industry are:
ABB is a Swiss-Swedish multinational corporation that provides robotics, automation, and electrification solutions. ABB offers a range of cobots, such as YuMi, GoFa, and SWIFTI, that can work with humans in various applications, such as assembly, inspection, packaging, and testing. ABB also provides software and services for cobots, such as RobotStudio, SafeMove, and Ability Connected Services. Some of the latest developments or products from ABB are:
In March 2021, ABB launched a new generation of cobots, GoFa and SWIFTI, that are designed to be easy to use, install, and operate. These cobots can handle payloads of up to 5 kg and 4 kg, respectively, and have a reach of up to 950 mm and 580 mm, respectively. They can also be controlled by voice or gestures, and can be integrated with mobile devices and cloud platforms.
In April 2021, ABB partnered with Amazon Web Services (AWS) to create a cloud-based robotics platform that will enable customers to monitor and manage their cobots from anywhere. The platform will leverage AWS’s artificial intelligence, machine learning, and analytics capabilities to provide data-driven insights and optimization for cobots.
Doosan Robotics is South Korean company that specializes in collaborative robots and smart factory solutions. Doosan Robotics offers four models of cobots, A0509, A0509s, A0912, and A0912s, that can handle payloads of up to 15 kg and have a reach of up to 1.7 m. Doosan Robotics also provides software and accessories for cobots, such as DR Vision, DR Controller, and DR Teach Pendant.
In October 2020, Doosan Robotics launched a new series of cobots, the H Series, that are designed to be more powerful, precise, and versatile. The H Series consists of four models, H2017, H2017s, H2515, and H2515s, that can handle payloads of up to 25 kg and have a reach of up to 1.7 m. They also feature six torque sensors, a safety-rated speed monitor, and a 17-inch touch screen.
In March 2021, Doosan Robotics partnered with SK Telecom, a leading telecommunications company in South Korea, to develop a 5G-based cobot service that will enable remote control and monitoring of cobots. The service will use SK Telecom’s 5G network, edge computing, and AI technologies to provide low-latency and high-quality video streaming and data analysis for cobots.
FANUC is a Japanese company that is one of the largest makers of industrial robots in the world. FANUC offers a variety of cobots, such as CRX-10iA, CR-15iA, and CR-35iA, that can work with humans in various tasks, such as machine tending, welding, gluing, and assembly. FANUC also provides software and services for cobots, such as Hand Guidance, iRVision, and Force Sensors. Some of the latest developments or products from FANUC are:
In December 2019, FANUC introduced a new cobot, the CRX-10iA, that is designed to be easy to use, install, and program. The CRX-10iA can handle payloads of up to 10 kg and have a reach of up to 1.2 m. It also features a lightweight and compact design, a soft and smooth surface, and a tablet interface.
In April 2021, FANUC launched a new software solution, the Quick and Simple Startup Package (QSSP), that enables customers to set up and operate their cobots in a few hours. The QSSP includes a pre-configured controller, a teach pendant with a graphical user interface, and a set of application templates and tutorials.
Overcoming Barriers and Leveraging the Benefits of Cobots
The cobot market is a growing and promising sector that offers many opportunities for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to improve their productivity, efficiency, quality, and safety. However, there are also some challenges that SMEs need to overcome to successfully adopt and implement cobots in their operations. Here are some of the main challenges and opportunities for SMEs in the cobot market:
Cost: Cobots are generally cheaper than traditional industrial robots, but they still require a significant initial investment and maintenance cost. SMEs may have limited financial resources and cash flow to afford cobots, especially in times of economic uncertainty and disruption. However, there are some ways to reduce the cost of cobots, such as leasing, renting, or buying used cobots, or using robotics as a service (RaaS) models that provide cobots and related services on demand.
Skills: Cobots are designed to be easy to use, install, and program, but they still require some technical skills and knowledge to operate and integrate them into existing production systems. SMEs may have a shortage of skilled workers or training opportunities to cope with the learning curve of cobots. However, there are some ways to enhance the skills of SMEs, such as using online platforms, tutorials, and templates to learn how to program and control cobots, or collaborating with universities, research institutes, or other SMEs to share best practices and experiences.
Safety: Cobots are intended to work with humans in a shared workspace, but they still pose some potential risks and hazards to human workers, such as collisions, injuries, or malfunctions. SMEs may have to comply with strict safety standards and regulations to ensure the well-being of their employees and customers. However, there are some ways to improve the safety of cobots, such as using sensors, collision avoidance, and anti-trap protection to prevent accidents, or using cybersecurity solutions to protect cobots and their data from cyberattacks.
Awareness: Cobots are relatively new and emerging technologies that may not be widely known or understood by SMEs and their stakeholders, such as customers, suppliers, or investors. SMEs may have to deal with some barriers and challenges to raise awareness and acceptance of cobots, such as lack of information, trust, or confidence, or resistance to change or innovation. However, there are some ways to increase the awareness and adoption of cobots, such as attending trade fairs, exhibitions, or workshops to learn more about cobots and their benefits, or showcasing success stories, testimonials, or case studies of other SMEs that have used cobots effectively.
The cobot market is an emerging and dynamic field that has the potential to transform the future of work and industry. They are not only machines, but also partners and co-workers that can help humans achieve their goals and aspirations. Cobots are not a threat, but an opportunity for humans to work smarter, safer, and better.