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Craig Tomita

Operations

Rundown on Manufacturing Robotics, Part 1

A third hand: Cobots are specifically designed to be safely used around people

Published: Tuesday, November 17, 2020 - 12:02

One of the most significant developments of potential interest to small and medium-sized manufacturers in the area of industrial robots is the introduction about 10 years or so ago of a subset of industrial robots called collaborative robots or “cobots.”

What makes them different from standard industrial robots is that cobots are specifically designed to be safely used around people. Why is this significant? Well, industrial robots, as high-tech as they might appear, are actually dumb. They will move to the place and at the speed that they have been programmed to achieve, but if a person happens to get in the way on the way to their destination, look out! Because standard industrial robots are designed for high speed, and they run off of high voltage (typically 220V AC) , they can be dangerous. Think of the last time that you saw the image of an industrial robot in an actual manufacturing setting. Why do you think they are normally situated in cages or behind guarding?

Cobots, on the other hand, are designed to collaborate and work in the same space alongside humans. They are typically smaller, run off of 110V AC (household voltage) and operate a little faster than a very fast human worker. Most cobots are equipped with force sensors, so if a human gets in the way of a cobot, it will immediately stop and prevent human injury. The amount of force sensed can be adjusted, but force can also be resistance. Most small and medium-sized companies do not have the space on their manufacturing floors to accommodate the cage or guarding needed to protect humans from standard industrial robots. Because cobots don’t need to be guarded, and because they are low voltage, many manufacturers mount their cobots on mobile carts and wheel them from application to application around the shop floor, as needs change. How’s that for versatility?

Last but not least, one of the main benefits that cobots have brought with them is the ability to be taught. That is, you actually move the cobot through the motions and steps you want it to perform, and save that sequence. Gone are the days when only those familiar with computer programming could program robots. It’s not that programming isn’t necessary when you actually teach a robot where you want it to go; it’s just that the robot control system is writing the lines of code for you, in the background.

Other benefits of cobots

Because cobots operate off of 110V AC power, small and medium-sized manufacturers without 220V AC can use cobots without having to route high-voltage power drops. There are other benefits of not having to move as fast as standard industrial robots. In addition to safety, another area is maintenance. There are differences among robot manufacturers, but the trend tends to be zero-maintenance. Individual joints can be readily swapped out and replaced, if needed. This means that downtime is minimal. Human workers also tend to perceive cobots not as job takers but as cool tools that they themselves can program and work with to make their own jobs easier.

With the cobots’ motions so lifelike, it’s not uncommon for human counterparts to name their cobots. Because these robots tend to move from place to place depending on need, “Waldo” is one of the more common names. For companies interested in the mobility advantage of cobots, this is also facilitated by the small size of cobot controllers, which is the result of technology improvements as well as the low-voltage needed to power cobots. Relatively speaking, the size of most standard industrial robot controllers is about the size of a dormitory refrigerator, whereas cobot controllers are about the size of a toaster oven.

Cobots: A practical option for even the smallest manufacturer

A good example to illustrate this is contract manufacturers. Generally speaking, a contract manufacturer builds products for other companies on a contract basis. Their runs are shorter, and volumes are relatively small. Sound familiar? What’s more, contract manufacturers usually have multiple clients. With so many products to contend with, contract manufacturers historically had the need for automation but could never justify the expenditure financially. A common scenario runs something like this: “I’m running part 1 for customer A twice a week. I’d like to use a standard industrial robot, but it would be sitting there idle for three out of five days, and if I lose this customer, I may not use that robot for some time, if ever. It’s difficult to program, and the guy that I had program the robot in the first place no longer works here.”

For all of the aforementioned reasons, an investment in a cobot makes sense for small and medium-sized manufacturers. Compared with standard industrial robots, the time it takes to get a cobot up and running and productive is often measured in hours compared to days for standard robots (higher voltage, guarding, etc.).

The main impediments to utilization by small and medium-sized manufacturers seem to be a lack of awareness that cobots, as a new type of industrial robot, even exist. Along with this, there’s the tendency to jump to the conclusion that cobots must be just like standard industrial robots—too expensive and too complex for the little guy. Such views are outdated, and you are probably doing yourself a disservice by being so quick to count out cobots as a viable option. They aren’t a replacement for standard industrial robots but rather an exciting subset of industrial robots that is augmentative as well as a door-opener for the small and medium-sized manufacturer.

First published on the CMTC blog.

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About The Author

Craig Tomita’s picture

Craig Tomita

With more than 30 years of experience in almost all aspects of automation sales, Craig Tomita is a client advisor at California Manufacturing Technology Consulting (CMTC).