Collaborative robots, or “cobots,” are robots designed to work alongside human workers as part of a mixed production process. Unlike traditional robots, cobots are flexible and can easily be reprogrammed or reconfigured to perform different tasks, making them ideal for industries such as manufacturing and assembly where precision, accuracy, and safety are key concerns. From their beginnings as a tool in manufacturing, cobots are now seeing a much broader range of potential applications, with industries as diverse as healthcare, education and mining all interested in the potential from programmable, customisable robotics.
A brief recap: Cobots offer many advantages over traditional robots, including the ability to perform tasks that are dangerous or difficult for human workers, such as handling hazardous materials, operating in extreme temperatures, or performing repetitive tasks for long periods of time. In addition, cobots can increase productivity and efficiency while improving safety for workers by taking over physically demanding tasks that require repetition and precision.
One of the main benefits of cobots is their flexibility. Unlike traditional robots, cobots can be reprogrammed on the spot by a human colleague, allowing companies to quickly adapt to changing market conditions or product lines without having to invest in expensive new equipment. The ability of cobots to perform tasks with a high degree of precision and accuracy is also valuable in industries such as manufacturing and assembly, where small errors can result in costly rework or scrap. Unlike previous episodes of industrial mechanisation, cobots are specifically designed to perform multiple tasks and to be reprogrammable by humans who work closely alongside them, preventing the need for costly re-installation and increasing the lifetime usability of the cobot.
In the manufacturing industry, cobots can help reduce labour costs, increase productivity, and improve product quality, giving companies a competitive edge in the global marketplace. Cobots are also becoming increasingly popular in service industries, such as healthcare and retail, where they can perform routine tasks such as taking vital signs or delivering medication, freeing up human workers to focus on more complex and critical tasks. These advantages are shared with older robotic devices, but cobots have the added benefit of being considerably cheaper to install and operate, alongside the benefits of reprogrammability. This means that a single device can be used for a range of applications over its lifetime or even over much shorter periods, multiplying the advantage offered.
Another opportunity that cobots present is the ability to perform tasks that are currently difficult or impossible for humans, such as exploring extreme environments or performing microsurgery. This opens up new possibilities for the application of robotics in industries such as space exploration, deep-sea oil rigs, and medical procedures. It should be noted that these activities can also be carried out by single function robots, and of course that environments entirely without humans are slightly stretching the definition of ‘collaboration’ – they should still properly be considered as within the scope of cobots as it is possible to interact with a remotely controlled machine from great distances, more so now than ever before. The exact line between a ‘normal’ robot and a cobot is never of course perfect, but they are two useful concepts for discussing changes in the field of industrial robotics.
While cobots offer many advantages, there are also some concerns that need to be addressed. One concern is the potential for cobots to take away jobs from human workers. However, it is important to note that cobots are designed to work alongside human workers, instead of replacing them, but of course they will likely change the nature of the roles working with them. It is also important to consider the cost of installing cobots and the impact they will have on the workforce. Cobots tend to pay for themselves within a few years through savings, but the jobs that remain may require higher skills and be more expensive. In addition, cobots require maintenance and repair, which may also need to be performed by trained staff, potentially increasing the risk of shutdowns when such workers are in short supply.
Cobots normally take the form of a robotic, programmable arm, although this is not essential. The reprogrammable arm is the most standard form cobots take, and with very good reason: Robotic arms have already revolutionized manufacturing by providing numerous benefits such as improved speed, precision, and efficiency. Some of the current applications of robotic arms in manufacturing include:
- Assembly: Robotic arms can automate repetitive tasks, such as screwdriving, soldering, and pressing, resulting in increased speed and precision.
- Painting and coating: Robotic arms equipped with specialized tools can accurately apply paint and coatings to objects, reducing waste and improving quality.
- Material handling: Robotic arms can perform tasks such as moving heavy materials, loading and unloading machines, and organizing parts for assembly.
- Quality control: Robotic arms can be programmed to perform visual inspections and measurements, ensuring consistent quality control.
- Welding: Robotic arms can perform welding tasks with greater speed, accuracy, and consistency than human workers, reducing defects and improving efficiency.
- Packaging and palletizing: Robotic arms can automate the process of packaging and palletizing goods, reducing labour costs and improving efficiency.
- Machine tending: Robotic arms can load and unload raw materials and finished products from machines, freeing up human workers to perform other tasks.
- Sorting and inspection: Robotic arms can sort and inspect products based on size, shape, colour, and other criteria, improving efficiency and accuracy.
- Food processing: Robotic arms can be used to automate tasks such as cutting, slicing, and packaging food products, improving hygiene and reducing waste.
- Medical manufacturing: Robotic arms can be used in the manufacture of medical devices and implants, improving precision and reducing human error.
As you can see from this non-exhaustive list, robotic arms have numerous potential uses in manufacturing and have the ability to improve speed, precision, and efficiency in a variety of tasks. By automating repetitive and dangerous tasks, robotic arms can free up human workers to focus on more complex and creative tasks, leading to increased productivity and competitiveness in the manufacturing industry. Eventually this spreads benefits everywhere in the economy, as the cost of goods falls, speed of manufacture increases and the general cost of living declines.
Overall, cobots have the potential to revolutionize the way we think about automation in the workplace, offering a range of advantages and opportunities in industries as diverse as healthcare, manufacturing, and retail. While there are concerns to be addressed, the benefits of cobots are clear, and their use is likely to become increasingly widespread in the coming years. Business owners and employees must carefully consider the advantages and disadvantages of cobots and weigh them against the needs of their particular industry before making a decision on whether to adopt this technology; however it is important to highlight that compared to traditional robots the fact that cobots can be programmed to multiple applications with ease, cost less to install and run, and are able to be easily manipulated by workers on site are all strong advantages. It seems likely collaborative robotics will open up new industries to automation, and bring robots into places that were previously the exclusive preserve of human staff, either due to technical or financial restraitnts.