Do Collaborative Robots Make Sense?

February 3, 2014

Manufacturers have lots of different robotic options available today. Proven technology includes articulated six-axis robots, Cartesian robots, delta robots and SCARA robots, which can each handle a variety of assembly tasks. So, why all the hype about a new class of automation that allows robots and human to closely interact on the plant floor?

“Collaborative robots offer many advantages over traditional industrial robots for certain applications,” claims Eric Foellmer, marketing and communications manager at Rethink Robotics Inc., which recently launched a collaborative robot called Baxter. “They are safe to operate next to people without cages, so they can be utilized in highly manual production lines that have historically been off-limits to traditional robotic systems.

“Most robots in the category are also easier to program than their industrial counterparts,” adds Foellmer. “In Baxter’s case, even line workers and other non-engineers can train the robot to do a task.”

Collaborative robots are also quite flexible; they can be reprogrammed quickly and easily to work on different tasks in a facility. “This helps to maximize their return on investment since you’re able to utilize them across multiple lines in a plant,” says Foellmer.

“Collaborative robots are generally far less expensive to deploy than industrial robots, especially when considering a streamlined process for integration that can add two to five times the base cost of a typical industrial robot,” argues Foellmer.

“There are many industries, such as automotive, that are already very heavily automated with traditional industrial robotics,” says Foellmer.” I anticipate that industries and companies in which automation is less prevalent today (due to expense, danger, high changeover requirements and other factors) will be the ones that see the largest influx of collaborative robotics over the next decade.

 “Job shops, contract packagers and third-party logistics providers—industries relying largely on human labor today—will stand to benefit greatly from these technologies as they look to become more competitive on a global scale,” predicts Foellmer. “Overall, it’s a very exciting time to be part of this industry.” 

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February 4, 2014
Buzzword is interaction. Placing robots and people together, without fencing, working separately is just a lower cost solution for a traditional robotic cell: less cost, less floorspace ... Problem is safety, not collaboration. I would talk about symbiotic robots, not collaborative robots. This is, a person takes advantage of robot strength, repeatability, and the person adds to the process his intelligence and cognitive capabilities. Example: place heavy panels on a large structure: The robot takes a panel, approaches the assembly position and holds it, but the person guides the movement to the very last inch effortlessly.

collaboration is inevitable

February 5, 2014
It seems ironic that the most mature robots, those on the plant floor, remain the most isolated and least interactive. They are, of course, caged for safety like powerful animals. But the computing power, sensors and algorithms to allow them to interact and become part of the community of workers are at hand. The emergence of autonomous vehicles and helper robots is made possible by increasingly cheap and effective solutions that will soon make even basic robots highly “aware” of their surroundings and coworkers. It should be inevitable that increased collaboration among humans and robots should be enabled on the shop floor in the near future. Witness lighter, smarter and more integrated robots like Baxter. But as Francesc Cortes Grau has written in his post, symbiotic may be the better term. Things get really complicated when robots are asked to make complex judgments or travel through rich environments with too many stimuli. The wisdom in collaboration may lie in good decisions about where to stop and let the human use that wonderful brain thing, while the robot is only asked to do what it does well at a given point in its evolution.


February 6, 2014
Absolutely agree to Francesc and Bob, especially in the point symbiotic - at a given point in its evolution. We will see the rise of service or personal robotics already starting this year. Why? Next step (industrial) service robotics are ready to go for next step automation in big markets e.g. automotive, electronics replacing or assisting human in an ergonomic manner. Accompanied by Industry 4.0, CPS shaping the new factories of the future.



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