Cobots for the Next Generation of Manufacturing

  • March 26, 2018
  • DO Supply
  • Feature
Cobots for the Next Generation of Manufacturing
Cobots for the Next Generation of Manufacturing

By Ashley Little, DO Supply, Inc.

Robots have been used in manufacturing for decades to speed production, enhance accuracy and replace human labor. Yet, not all activities in a production line can be automated with robots, and production lines with caged off ‘workers’ performing the same task multiple times over aren’t always the best use of factory space.

Enter the cobot – a smaller collaborative machine that is freeing robots from their cages and enabling humans to work alongside robot counterparts ina diverse range of applications. Rather than working in a caged off area, cobots are designed to collaborate with human workers and enhance the production teams’ capabilities rather than replace them.


Enhancing Production Lines with Collaborative Machines

Although invented back in 1996 and patented in 1997, cobots have only just started to make an impact on manufacturers in recent years. Due to the enhancement of technology allowing for simplified configuration via an app and plug-and-play accessibility, cobots have evolved enough to efficiently work alongside a human workforce.

Ford’s manufacturing plant in Germany is successfully using cobots alongside their human workforce to fit shock absorbers to cars. The cobots, just over 3-feet high, work with human teams at two stations to lift and position shock absorbers into the wheel arch – lending accuracy, strength and dexterity to the human teams.

Photo by Rethink Robotics

Nelipak Healthcare Packaging implemented Rethink RoboticsSawyer cobot to assist with loading trays and lidding to their heat tray sealer. Sawyer is used to pick up several products at once while human operators carry out tasks that are more complex and harder to automate. Sawyer has a screen with eyes to make it more approachable and encourage human co-workers to be comfortable working with it.


The Four Types of Collaborative Operation

There are currently four main ways that cobots are designed for manufacturers. Some robotics companies even allow businesses to tailor cobots for specific production needs.

  1. Power and force limiting: The most typical of today’s cobots, these limitations enable the cobot to know how much power and force a human can withstand and instantly cease activity if an obstacle is encountered. The energy of any collision is kept below maximum levels as defined by ISO.
  2. Safety monitored stop: Sensors make the cobot aware of its human workers proximity and if a hand or other body part gets too close to what the cobot is doing, it will cease its activity.
  3. Speed and separation monitoring: Sensors detect human immediacy and reduce operating speeds as the distance is closed.
  4. Hand-guiding: Cobots which are hand-guiding enabled have an end-of-arm device which is sensitive to pressure. The sensors allow the cobot to learn from an operator how to hold an object and how fast to move it so it can be operated on or moved without damage. Hand-guiding cobots are ideal for use in delicate production lines.


Can Cobots Fill the Skills Gap?

Where larger and heavier robots were used to replace humans in production lines to perform difficult or dangerous tasks, their smaller, lightweight cousin - cobots - can be used for a wider range of tasks and enhance a production team’s ability, possibly going some way toward filling themanufacturing skills gap.

Cobots enable further automation within manufacturing in such a way that human workers aren’t replaced, rather they are enhanced and freed to perform more intricate and interesting roles within the organization. For example, some of these roles could include programming a cobot to work on a new product line or teaching a cobot co-worker how to manipulate parts to assemble derivative products.

Thanks to the embedded vision systems, sophisticated behavior software, and robotic positioning systems that enable workers to train them by example, cobots are not only more versatile and adaptable than their robot predecessors; they may well be the future of manufacturing.


About the Author

Ashley Little is from DO Supply, Inc., an industrial equipment supplier based in Cary, NC. She writes about robotics, machine learning, and the future of automation for industries.

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