At the Automate trade show in Chicago last week, the exhibit hall was buzzing with talk about collaborative robots. Next-generation machines equipped with state-of-the-art sensor technology allow robots to operate side-by-side with humans on assembly lines. There’s no need for traditional safety barriers and protective cages.

I visited with several companies that displayed new collaborate robots that promise to transform manufacturing. And, I attended several educational sessions on the topic to gather material for an upcoming article.

I’ve been following this trend for several years. In fact, I first wrote about collaborative robots back in 2008 (“Man vs. Machine”). I also tackled the subject last year (“Human-Robot Collaboration Comes of Age”).

During Automate, I observed engineers from Apple, Caterpillar, Delphi, General Motors and other leading manufacturers who were intrigued by the potential of collaborative robots. And, I had an opportunity to take a close look at two robots that were unveiled at the show.

Kuka Robotics Corp. showed off its new LBR iiwa (intelligent industrial work assistant), which it claims “makes it possible to automate delicate and complex automation tasks in which the use of robots was previously inconceivable.” The collaborative, seven-axis robot is available in two models that can handle payloads of 7 and 14 kilograms.

Universal Robots USA Inc. unveiled the UR3, which it calls “the next step in collaborative robot technology.” The compact, tabletop machine is designed to be “an optimal assistant in assembly, polish, glue and screw applications requiring uniform product quality.” It features 15 adjustable safety settings, including force sensing that enables the UR3 to limit the forces at contact if it collides with a human. For applications where space is not a challenge, the company offers larger versions called the UR5 and the UR10.

In addition, I stopped by Precise Automation Inc.’s booth to see its new tabletop PP100 Cartesian robot, which is designed for electronic and medical device assembly applications. Sensors constantly limit collision forces and permit users to safely access the robot’s active workspace while the machine is operating at full speed.

One of the big players in the collaborative robotics field, Rethink Robotics Inc., announced a new one-armed machine called Sawyer. However, for some peculiar reason, the robot was AWOL at the Automate show. So, I never saw Sawyer (only his “big brother,” Baxter, was on display) and I had to settle for a bunch of marketing hype and hoopla instead.

I also learned that one of the industry’s oldest and biggest companies, ABB Robotics, plans to unveil a collaborative robot in a few weeks—at the Hannover Fair in Germany.

While at McCormick Place, I had a chance to attend a special panel discussion organized by the International Federation of Robotics. The “Robots and People Working Together” session featured several stalwarts of the collaborative robot movement, including Rodney Brooks, chairman and chief technology officer of Rethink Robotics; Henrik Christensen, executive director of the Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Machines at Georgia Tech University; and Enrico Krog Iversen, CEO of Universal Robots.

“Collaborative technology promises to transform robots from dangerous machines to safe tools,” Iversen predicted. “And, traditional training is not required to program and use them.”

“Collaborative robots are ideal for the 90 percent of manufacturing applications today that don’t use robots,” added Brooks. “Once you have people and robots in the same workspace, the robot doesn’t have to be 100 percent perfect. People can do some of the harder, more precise tasks.”

Is anyone out there using (or thinking about purchasing) collaborative robots in their factory? What are some of the pros and cons of this technology?