Collaborative Robots Providing Amazing Automation Opportunities for Small Manufacturers

  • August 27, 2019
  • Feature
Collaborative Robots Providing Amazing Automation Opportunities for Small Manufacturers
Collaborative Robots Providing Amazing Automation Opportunities for Small Manufacturers

By Bill Lydon, Contributing Editor,

Amongst the many new technologies that are impacting the manufacturing industry today, I am convinced that collaborative robots are the highest impact automation development that can improve manufacturing for small and medium manufacturing enterprises. 

Collaborative robots are a new breed of lightweight and inexpensive robots, with safety features which enable people to work cooperatively with these devices in a production environment. Collaborative robots can sense humans and other obstacles, and respond by automatically stopping so they cause no harm or destruction. With these robots, protective fences and cages are not required and therefore they can enable flexibility and lower implementation cost. These robots are particularly attractive investments for small to medium sized companies, as the typical cost is less than $40,000 and their simplified programming means they can be deployed without hiring specialized engineers.

While robots have been around for a while, this simplified programming process for this new class of robots, without the need for programming gurus, is a recent development. In the past, the industry created robot programming interfaces for engineers who wanted PLC (Programmable Logic Controller) or machine tool type software languages. Now collaborative robots can be operated without complex programming. Most tasks can be accomplished with no programming skills, by simply moving the robot arms and end effectors. The teacher effectively shows the robot what to do and the robot memorizes the motions and creates the program. This is a physical form of the popular computer programming concept called “what you see is what you get” (WYSIWYG). It is designed to be intuitive for users and has been proven in many implementations to broaden the application of technology.


Collaborative robots are extremely flexible.  Image courtesy Universal Robots 

Having followed collaborative robot developments since their beginning, I am struck by the similarity to the impact that Personal Computers (PC) had on industry.  Prior to the PC introduction, computers were still powerful devices but were expensive and had to be programmed by software specialists, writing cryptic computer code.   Since this meant that the cost to implement solutions was very high, few applications were done using computers. When PCs were introduced, however, they did not have the computational power of mainframes and minicomputers nor the large amount of memory. Yet with their lower cost and flexibility, people were empowered to apply computers to a wider range of applications. Even before the rise of Microsoft Windows, people used PCs running DOS using spreadsheets, CAD, word documents, and databases to apply computing without the computer programming specialists.  These factors greatly empowered manufacturing people and processes, leading to a revolution in the application of computers for industrial automation and dramatically improving productivity.  

Humans can safely interact with collaborative robots.  ABB YuMi robot.  

The new breed of collaborative robots is analogous to the PC, in that they can perform\ a wide range of tasks, most with smaller payloads (typically under 20 kilograms) and can be taught to meet application needs. This type of technology pattern ignites revolutions by providing a product with less power than larger more expensive offerings, but provide for greater usability by eliminating programming and therefore adding value for a broader base of users.  It is because of the that collaborative robots can significantly lower the capital investment barrier, as well as increase productivity for small and medium manufacturers.

Collaborative robots provide small manufacturers with a tremendous opportunity to automate a wide range of production steps and find a decent return on investment. This is, again, a shift from the already prevalent advancements in robotics –  where automation investments in the past required significant capital investment and were only feasible for large manufacturing companies.

Collaborative robots are providing smaller manufacturers an opportunity to find their own productivity gains and become more competitive.


Cobots’ Versatility and Flexibility Multiplies ROI

Many Industry 4.0, Smart Factory, and Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) initiatives focus on automation investments for make-to-order flexible manufacturing. Collaborative robots are one way to accomplish these objectives at a low cost, since they can be applied to applications without having to be programmed to perform multiple tasks. In addition, these robots can be mounted on rolling stands, so they can be moved to various workstations and production cells to perform various tasks, the versatility further multiplying the return on investment for small and medium manufacturers.

Collaborative robots can perform repetitive and mundane tasks that were previously performed by an operator. Operators no longer are forced to stand at a machine for hours doing repetitive, mindless tasks. This improves productivity and quality while freeing up workers to do other work that requires human skills.  Therefore today’s small and medium manufacturers can achieve the benefits of automation at an affordable cost. Further benefits include:

Automation Benefits

  • Reliably perform monotonous tasks.
  • Predictable cycle times
  • Greater precision & accuracy improving quality
  • Protecting operators from dangerous or hazardous tasks
  • Empowered employees to concentrate on more valuable tasks including improvements, decision making and problem solving.

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