Robots or humans: which is the workforce of the future for the manufacturing industry? A new trend, cobots, suggest that it may actually be human-robot hybrid teams that win out. Cobots (short for "co-working robots") are an emerging robotics technology designed to work safely in tandem with humans. Many manufacturing experts believe they will become a significant source of growth and innovation in Manufacturing 4.0.
One MIT study found that cobots and humans were 85 percent more effective working together than either alone. Cobots represented around 5 percent of the industrial robots sold and cost an average of $24,000 per robot. Market estimates suggest they could grow to a $3 billion market by 2020, according to National Geographic.
Understanding Cobots in the manufacturing ecosystem
Many of today’s massive robotic arms are unwieldy and operate behind fences while bolted to the floor, programmed to come to a complete stop when a person approaches. Changing a cobot’s engineering has opened up completely new collaborative possibilities.
As National Geographic writes, “Now, a lighter weight, mobile plug-and-play generation is arriving on the factory floor to collaborate safely with human workers thanks to advances in sensor and vision technology and computing power. Get in their way, and they will stop. Program them with a tablet or simply by moving their arms in the required pattern; no coding is necessary. And if the robot is needed in a different part of the factory – unlike the heavy robotic arms that populate the world’s automotive factories and are bolted to the floor – they can be easily moved.”
Seeing cobots in action quickly puts their contributions into perspective. At an automotive factory, for example, a worker creates a system end to end at a bench while a cobot lifts heavy parts and hands specific items to the worker at just the right time. When the system is finished, the arm lifts up the product to put it on the line while the worker gets started with the next one. It’s fast, it’s efficient, and it ultimately creates benefits for the worker: they’re not lifting heavy components or doing unsafe work, and can instead work on bringing their technical knowledge and creativity to the table.
Cobots: driving collaboration in the automotive industry and beyond
One-third of the world's robots are used to advance automotive innovation and solutions, and the majority of automotive brands, including Ford, BMW and Mercedes, leverage cobots. As one Ford executive said in an interview with CNBC, "The workforce is really helping us define how they can contribute more by using the collaborative robots to do some of the more mundane, simple, heavy-exertion tasks, which in turn allows them to use more of their creativity and their minds to take us to the next level.” In one factory, cobots installed shock absorbers onto cars, with small robots working alongside human production teams. By delegating routine or heavy tasks to robotic workers, manufacturing workers are free to focus on delivering the highly customized products today’s consumers are buying.
Other industries are already relying on cobots to speed up production. Universal Robots reports that cobots are being used in the food industry to run lettuce farms, assist in food picking, and even perform sample inspections. With low price points and the ability to be programmed into almost any production process, cobots open up an important field: better collaboration within small and midsize businesses (SMBs). SMBs comprise the majority of the global manufacturing market, and we’re likely to see a major increase in cobot adoption as the intelligent cars of the future take shape.
The future of adoption for Cobots
There are hurdles that remain, many of which are related to mindset. Company owners and managers want proof of concept before they make the investment, and as more of those hit the market and are shared in professional associations, the barriers will break down. Collaboration with cobots also requires a worker mindset shift, moving away from the idea that automation is all bad and going to take people’s jobs. Example after example in the media shows that once workers see that cobots can handle repetitive and unpleasant tasks, they’re much more willing to engage.
Collaborative robots serve as workforce multipliers, while also ensuring an improvement in quality and final product output. We still have much to learn. As American Machinist notes, there are even fundamental challenges for managers learning to lead cobot-human teams. However, one thing is for certain: as designers create robots that are increasingly agile, safe to work alongside humans and programmable for the specific needs of different industries, cobots are going to become one of the most important tools and teammates in a manufacturer’s arsenal.
"There’s a lot of opportunity to innovate with cobots for the manufacturers who invest in using them," says François Barbier, president of Global Operations and Components at Flex. "They bring a new level of agility and output to industrial automation, while also enabling our employees to focus more on the creative challenges in making a product while the cobots can take care of routine or dangerous tasks."
"The jobs that are going to be taken over by automation are actually going to be replaced with additional product volume and categories," continues Barbier. "We will need people who are able to manage these new operations, manage the robotics, to program them and maintain them, and to collect information and interpret what you can do with it. There are a lot of different categories of experts and skilled people we'll need for designing, building and using automation."