Spending on robotics among industrial companies will continue to climb over the next decade – but smaller, less costly and highly adaptable collaborative robots are ready for their turn in the spotlight.
The differences between collaborative robots (or sometimes, ‘cobots’) and their predecessors couldn’t be more clear. Traditional industrial robots are bulky, expensive and potentially dangerous beasts. In the manufacturing plants of large industrial companies, these valuable workhorses are generally kept caged, to keep human workers safe and out of harm’s way.
These older machines are not that smart, either: they’re built to faithfully carry out specific actions repeatedly, without variation and to a high degree of accuracy, determined by programmatic routines that specify the direction, velocity and distance of coordinated movements. That’s often bad news for the worker who gets in their way, as evidenced by the death of a Volkswagen factory worker in Germany in 2015.
Nevertheless, traditional industrial robots dominate the market. Working from figures provided by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), a recent report from Chicago-based venture capital firm Loup Ventures says: “Of all the industrial units shipped [in 2015], we believe 250,073 of industrial robots were in the form of traditional systems, while the remaining 3,675 units were collaborative machines.”
In other words, collaborative robots, designed to work side-by-side with their human colleagues, often assisting them to perform tasks, accounted for only 1.4 percent of shipments that year, in an industrial robotics market worth $11.1 billion in total.
But that looks set to change. Cobots are smaller, safer, less costly and highly adaptable to different tasks – and this is why many believe they have a bigger role to play at industrial companies of all sizes. In particular, their main benefits might be felt by the small and medium-sized organizations that provide between 40 percent and 80 percent of total manufacturing jobs in OECD countries (and often far more in emerging economies).
The key suppliers in today’s cobot market, meanwhile, are ABB, Fanuc, KUKA, Rethink Robotics, Universal Robots and Yaskawa Motoman. Some models are available at prices as low as around $30,000 (£23,000).
It’s their use of sensors and processing power – getting cheaper every day – that make cobots smarter. They can sense the presence of a human colleague in their immediate proximity and adjust to avoid collisions. They’re easy to train in new tasks, thanks to machine learning. Because they’re mobile, they can easily be redeployed to different manufacturing ‘cells’ across a factory.
With that in mind, Loup Ventures expects cobot shipments to increase from 8,950 units in 2016 to around 434,404 by 2025, representing a market value of some $9 billion.
“In the manufacturing sector, robots and humans are beginning to work together side-by-side; as a result, the cobot industrial market will likely be one of the fastest growing markets in the robotics space,” they write.
For example, at one of the world’s largest manufacturers of bathroom accessories and auto parts, Xiamen Runner Industrial Corporation in China, 64 cobots from Universal Robots have been deployed on the production line, performing tasks as varied as tending to injecting-molding machines to product assembly. According to Yiping Chen, automation manager at the company: “With Universal Robots, a new project can be up and running in a week, while it takes as much as six months to get a traditional robot ready.”
Meanwhile, Acorn Sales Company, a specialist manufacturer of customized, handmade rubber stamps and embossing seals in Richmond, Virginia, is using a Sawyer cobot from Rethink Robotics to operate a band saw. This cobot transfers, aligns and cuts pieces of wood to be used as mounts for rubber stamps – a skilled and multi-step process. It use has maintained throughput while improving quality at the family-owned and operated firm. “Since deploying Sawyer, we have drastically reduced the length of our supply chain, which has saved us money, and given us more control over the quality of our products,” said Holly Raidabaugh, a vice president of the company (see video below).
Time for center stage
This doesn’t mean the end for traditional systems, however: Loup Venture’s analysts expect sales in that area to remain strong. Nor will traditional systems and collaborative systems compete, they add. The two are complementary. “However, due to advancements in computer vision, AI and motion sensing capabilities, collaborative robots are beginning to take center stage.”
All this has important repercussions for the industrial IoT (IIoT), because cobots are typically equipped with far more sensors and produce more data to be processed and analyzed than their assembly-line counterparts. Their mass deployment in factories is likely to force a new focus among factory owners on edge computing to support them all. And getting the most from them will demand a new focus on artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques.