Collaborative Robots on the March


Cobots were invented in 1996 by professors J. Edward Colgate and Michael Peshkin at Northwestern University in the USA, whose research was supported by an initiative by General Motors which was keen to develop robots to work alongside people safely. These devices were designed to assist human ergonomics in the workplace safely as well as accurately. The name, first coined by Northwestern postdoctoral student, Brent Gillespie, was later chosen as one of the Words of Tomorrow by the Wall Street Journal in its January 1, 2000, issue.

The word, collaboration, is key. This is technology to assist, not replace. Much with which we associate the word robot, stems from fears and social expectations, such as depicted in science fiction and optimistic predictions of the future, conceived in the modernist era of the early 20th century. Robotics originated in science fiction and life imitated art in an attempt to fulfil an old dream, or avoid an old nightmare. The word was first applied in a 1920 science fiction play by the anti-Nazi and anti-Communist Czech writer, Karel Čapek. The play, R.U.R., brought the word ROBOT (meaning serf or forced labourer) to the world. In the play, the robots rebel against their human masters.

In 2018 we are less concerned with robot rebellion than we are with their perceived threats to our human workforce and the possible negative effects of disruptive technology on our own business whether it is adopted or not. The factory of the future will not be an automated wasteland denuded of human beings or humanity. Robots can be our liberators, not our oppressors. This is especially true about cobots.

Mike Wilson, business development manager at ABB Robotics, agrees: “We believe that robotic automation should be about creating jobs, not taking them away. Achieving a smart factory is about using the latest technologies to help make sure that human workers are as productive and creative as they can be. Today’s new generation of workers grew up in a digital world and want rewarding mental challenges, not strenuous or repetitive physical ones.

ABB YuMi CoBot

“ABB believes that jobs are created and protected when businesses are efficient and flexible to adapt to change. Cobots are designed to work with people and complement their unique skills, not to fully automate jobs which are done by people.”

 Mike Wilson, Business Development Manager at ABB Robotics


He says that the company has long believed that the best results occur when the consistency, accuracy, speed and dexterity of robots are combined with the innate intelligence, creativity and adaptability of human workers: “We see ourselves at the start of the age of collaborative automation, which is already seeing entirely new solutions being developed that enable people and robots to work together,” he asserts.

“Collaborative automation means different things to different people. It can include everything from sharing the same workspace without planned interaction, to shared cooperation of the same task. One aspect of collaborative automation is ‘cobots’. Specifically, ‘cobots’ are robots that are designed to work safely with people through a variety of safety measures including force sensors and power and speed limits, often with no need for safety fencing or barriers.

“Collaborative automation helps increase flexibility to manufacture products of greater diversity in smaller lots; because of their lightweight design, they can easily be redeployed in the production space to wherever they are needed. This ease of deployment allows companies to get more from their human workers by enabling them to contribute their unique problem solving and improvisation skills, further increasing flexibility. Furthermore, whilst traditional industrial robots are often programmed with complex software, cobots can be programmed by anyone, without specialized training.

“A major attraction of cobots is that they are non-disruptive,” says Wilson. “They’re simple to integrate into an assembly line without disruption because they’re mostly quite small, lightweight and easy to move across the shop floor. They can work with high precision and never get sleepy or distracted. They can also be equipped with 2D and 3D vision systems to better understand changes in their workspace that might require intervention. This technology allows the robots to recognise the parts individually, so that when different parts are introduced, it can quickly assemble them in the correct order. The vision technology also enables collaborative robots to perform testing and packaging processes.”

John Kitchingman, managing director for Northern Europe at Dassault Systèmes, is optimistic about the future: “There will, in our opinion, always be a role for the human skill, the experience and the know-how, in the delivery of a highly complex product, which means that true evolution will be a collaborative process. But the exciting benefits that can be derived from reducing the strain on the human during these processes, can’t be underestimated. Speed, consistency, detail, strength, and support in repetitive motions – these are all benefits to be derived.”

John Kitchingman, Managing Director for Northern Europe at Dassault Systèmes

 Keith Thornhill, Head of Food & Beverage, Siemens UK & Ireland believes that challenges in the food sector, such as potential labour shortages post Brexit, as well as pressures around seasonal labour, mean that automation is playing an increasing role in solving such issues, especially concerning low-skilled manual tasks: “Cobots are able to operate alongside humans in a safe manner and will be part of the solution,” he explains. “Challenges around the type of task for which cobots are suitable remain, for example processes where high accuracy or speed is required. Different industrial sectors will deploy cobot solutions according to need, with some more suitable than others. However, this technology will continue to evolve and Siemens will continue to collaborate with specialist robotic manufacturers in order to generate tailor-made controls solutions that optimise the efficiencies that cobots offer.”

Matthew Potts, project sales engineer at HMK Automation and Drives explains that at HMK, they have acquired an understanding of how the cobot fits into the factories of the future and how they can be utilised to bring best value. “From the various applications in which we have been involved, we can see that there is a massive opportunity to bring the UK forwards. We can adapt our experience for various applications enabling our customers to be sure the cobots are implemented correctly.

“As manufacturing processes become more complex and dispersed, conventional automation solutions can no longer provide the flexibility needed to keep up. Trends such as the drive towards personalised products and the expectation of fast delivery of high quality products are demanding new production methods that can keep pace.”


Wilson has some advice for manufacturers contemplating additional automation given that, according to ABI Research, the market for collaborative robots was expected to jump from 3,000 units in 2015 to over 40,000 units by 2020 – a substantial 67% CAGR. “Although you might not think you need a robot now, it is highly probable that at least one of your competitors is either using robotic technology now or is likely to do so soon,” he says.

“It therefore pays to at least start contemplating a switch to robots if you want your organisation to stay competitive. Collaborative robots, particularly at the ‘cobot’ end of the scale, essentially provide the freedom to experiment and to start off small without impacting on the factory floor. For this reason, they can help to remove a key entry barrier to many new users, particularly small and medium businesses. Because collaborative robots are often easier to install, program and use, they have already achieved a faster adoption rate than traditional industrial robots.

“Many ABB customers are interested in the potential of collaborative automation to increase flexibility as new assembly applications emerge. Several customers have bought a YuMi robot without a specific application in mind just to explore its possibilities. The experience of such users shows that the best advice is to tackle the easiest tasks first, which will help to provide the experience and expertise needed to tackle more complex tasks further down the line.”

Potts points to productivity, quality and reliability as benefits of the introduction of cobots. He is sure that they will become safer in time, due to the incorporation of sensor technology linked to harmonised robot safety standards. First though, the scepticism of end-users must be overcome, “…bringing them on the journey of how cobots can benefit them and preparing them for a factory of the future.” He advises those about to embrace the technology, to engage experts in their field, who can assist in guiding them in the application of cobots and to start with simple, easy to implement tasks. “This will enable people to get used to the cobot colleagues without large disruption,” he says.

Wilson says that the real evolution of the technology will be driven as users become more reassured by these developments and start to deploy collaborative robots more widely. “Since we launched YuMi, for example, we have been constantly surprised by the new and amazing ways that people have found to use it,” he concludes.

The collaborative robot should be thought of as more, not less, than full-scale stand-alone robotics. It is a targeted digitally controlled instrument that fits and integrates into the smart factory supporting people and systems seamlessly. Its future is assured.







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