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Collaborative robots continue to be a major growth vector for the industry representing US$12 billion of sales by 2025, according to a Barclays report. By Shermine Gotfredsen, GM at Universal Robots, SEA & Oceania

The 2016 World Robotics Report forecast that collaborative robots or cobots — robots designed to work side-by-side with human workers — will drive the automation market going forward. The International Data Corporation predicted that 30 per cent of all new robotic deployments by 2018 will be smart cobots that operate three times faster than today’s robots and are safe for work around humans. A report by Barclays has forecast global sales of cobots will reach US$12 billion by 2025.

Cobots are the new frontier in industrial automation. This significantly smarter generation of robots is safer, more ergonomic and user-friendly in design, flexible in deployment and affordable compared to the old-generation industrial robots that are expensive, bulky, tedious to install and operate, and require protective fencing to prevent workplace injury.

Safety – An Integral Part Of Design

Cobots are primarily in-built with safety features for working alongside human employees; unlike legacy industrial robots that must be installed with protective barriers and must be operated from behind safety fences.

Cobots are designed with safety-related control system functions that comply with ISO/TS 15066 for cobots, the new technical specification for cobot production and deployment, established by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO). This is a standard that complies with ISO 10218-1:2011 5.4 or 10218-2:2011. 5.2 for industrial robots. The functions include safety rated monitored stop, hand guiding, speed and separation monitoring, and power and force limiting mechanisms. These features enable cobots to work closely and collaboratively with their human co-workers, ensuring safety.

These safety features eliminate the need for fencing and bulky barriers (subject to risk assessments), and allow cobots to operate even within small spaces.

Ease Of Usage And Ergonomics

Safety however is not the only factor that provides cobots the ability to collaborate with people. The ease of use derived from features such as ease of programming or customisation and user-friendliness also enable cobots to seamlessly integrate into production or assembly lines in factories.

Bulky legacy robots are rarely re-programmed for a second purpose because of their complex programming. Conversely cobots are user-friendly, easily programmed and reprogrammed to be integrated into existing systems to perform different tasks. They do not require specialised personnel to re-program or operate them. Companies can simply customise cobots for different tasks using relevant accessories, fitting the accessories themselves, without the need for specialised engineers.  

Traditional industrial robots often carry heavy mechanical parts and are not moved due to their massive construct. On the contrary, cobots are lightweight and compact. Besides the ease of integrating them into production lines to collaborate closely with their human co-workers, their size and weight allow cobots to be easily carried by hand to different locations without the need to change the spatial layout.

Cobots are also designed to deliver both dexterity and precision to address tasks that huge industrial robots find challenging. These include screw-driving, gluing, handling of textiles, assembling of small automotive parts or jewellery components, as well as operations that need agile back-and-forth movements.  

Flexibility In Deployment

These traits in cobots translate into an enormous benefit for businesses — flexibility in deployment. They can be easily re-deployed for varied functions that require automation within the same business, at different physical locations.

For example, food manufacturers have deployed cobots back and forth between food packing and package labelling tasks, saving a significant amount of time and the cost of investing in multiple types of machinery. They also relieve employees from repetitive work so that they can be upskilled to take on higher value responsibilities.

Affordable Automation

There are many financial benefits using cobots that the old-generation industrial robots are unable to offer. Cobots are more affordable and economically viable for businesses of all sizes to automate for higher efficiency and output quality.

Cobots’ safety features and ease of use make integration and implementation less costly than the traditional industrial robots; they do not require safety fencing or a change in production layout.

Cobots, which can be used for multiple functions due to their flexibility in deployment, offer higher returns on investment and faster payback, compared to legacy industrial robots. They can be customised for different applications, including simple tasks such as machine tending, palletising, packaging and pick-and-place operations easily and cost-effectively. This flexibility also means business owners can utilise the cobot for its entire lifespan, automating different processes, instead of only a limited period tied to a single process as with traditional robots.

There are other long-term tangible benefits such as reduction in material wastage, increase in production efficiency and quality, as well as helping employees reduce mistakes by ensuring consistent, dependable output while relieving the amount of arduous physical effort required. In such instances, cobots serve as an assistive tool to enhance productivity by delivering high-quality results each time, rather than as a replacement for human staff.

Change The Game With Cobots

Advances in technology have broken new ground with the advent of cobots, making automation a lot more exciting today. The benefits offered by these robots will bring new possibilities to industrial automation. Cobots can be applied in diverse sectors, and will transform the way businesses work, produce and sell. Business owners will gain much if they rethink their automation strategy and devise new ways to optimise production with these collaborative robotic workers.

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