If your company could adopt automation that heightened productivity and profitability, enhanced safety and paid itself off within months, would you invest in it? Cobots and their related technology—cobotics—are delivering those benefits for manufacturers. In fact, they are expected to go from being 3% of current robot sales to 34% by 2025, when spending on robotics should reach $13 billion, according to Robotics Online. Called cobots because this technology is designed to collaborate with human workers, the manufacturing sector sees great promise for them in the years to come.
A Boon for Small and Medium Manufacturers
Historically, only the biggest manufacturers could afford robots for their production lines. Industrial robots are big, noisy and dangerous for humans to work around, so factories enclose them in safety cages to guard employees from their powerful and often fast-moving parts. Heavy industries, such as automotive, have used these massive machines to make products like cars, which require the same specifications for a model, over and over again. The robots are highly efficient, but they are complex, expensive equipment that requires specialized personnel to program and maintain. For those reasons, robots have mostly been out of reach for small and medium-size businesses (SMBs)—until now.
Cobots are industrial robots’ younger, more agile siblings. Advances in computing power and technology have made smaller but highly advanced cobots available at increasingly affordable prices. The average cobot costs $24,000, making it a realistic investment for small and mid-size companies.
Cobots are an advantage to SMB manufacturers for other reasons as well. Cobots readily master repetitive, boring, dirty and dangerous tasks, freeing workers to take on more challenging jobs and keeping them from injury. This can help reduce employee turnover, overcome labor shortages and address seasonality problems in businesses such as furniture manufacturing, which tends to be cyclical.
Cobots also speed up processes and can increase profitability. All Axls Machining, based in Dallas, recently found it difficult to hire enough workers to operate fabrication machinery and do manual work, such as inspecting metal parts. Just half of its machines ran after 5 pm, which cost the company orders. The owner, Gary Kuzmin, purchased cobots from a leading maker, Universal Robots. After deploying them on a job that he expected to take six months, it was completed in half the time, thanks to the cobots’ contributions, which led to another pleasing outcome as well. “We saw a 60% profit increase on that job alone,” Kuzmin told the New York Times.
What is a Cobot?
While cobot designs are diverse, an articulated arm connected to a base is a common type. Many accessories, such as grippers, blades or other end tools, can be attached to the arm, depending on the task the cobot is required to undertake.
Most cobots share a set of characteristics. Cobots tend to be:
- Easy to program. It is said that a person who can program a smart phone can program a cobot. Often, a tablet is all that’s needed to program one. Other cobots “learn” their tasks using hand-guiding technology, also called programming by demonstration, where a human operator physically directs them through a desired process. The machine can then repeat the motions under its own power.
- Quick to set up. Initial setup takes just hours—as opposed to industrial robots, whose setup could take weeks or months.
- Traditional robots are designed for a specific application and are often bolted to the floor in one location of a factory. Cobots can be compact and mobile.
- Thanks to advanced sensor and vision technology, they sense obstacles (including humans) and adjust their speed, stop or reverse to avoid collisions.
Common Cobot Applications
Cobots can handle a wide range of tasks, usually with accuracy and speed that would be impossible for human workers to maintain for stretches of time. Cobot applications include injection molding; assembly; screw driving; polishing; gluing, dispensing and welding; machine tending; quality inspection; lab analysis and testing; pick-and-place; and packaging and palletizing. They also are used to maximize efficiency of numerical control machining (known as CNC), where pre-programmed software controls grinders, lathes, mills, routers and other complex machines.
Fusion OEM, for example, offers manufacturers pre-configured machine-tending cobots designed to work with their CNC milling and turning equipment for high-mix, low-volume machining production. Such cobots can help them achieve more efficient, reliable and uninterrupted spindle hours during work days and off-shifts.
Voodoo Manufacturing, based in Brooklyn, NY, uses a Universal Robots UR10 cobot to load and unload plates into 3D printers. According to Universal, the cobot has tripled production output and will help the Brooklyn startup cut costs by 90 percent.
Another Universal Robot customer, T&W Stamping, in Youngstown, Ohio, wanted to automate one of the most labor-intensive parts of its metal fabricating process: the tending of resistive welders. The job was complicated by the fact that the welding equipment’s electro-magnetic pulse could blank out robots’ servo motors. Yet, the company was able to use a UR5 cobot, which costs about $35,000. The cobot paid for itself in less than four months, supported a 40% increase in efficiency and freed up three operators to focus on other tasks, according to Universal.
Cobots and Manufacturing Jobs
It is widely said that cobots do not displace people, but rather, support them in their jobs, and can even lead to an increased number of jobs in a firm. It is true that cobots cost less per hour than human workers. A Pew research report indicates that the average hourly cost of a manufacturing worker is $36 in the United States, while the hourly cost of a robot is $4. The World Economic Forum believes that by 2022, 75 million jobs may be displaced by a shift in the division of labor between humans and machines (including cobots and robots), yet 133 million new roles may emerge.
Michigan-based Kay Manufacturing, which makes automotive parts, has used robots in its operations since 1996 and says it has never laid off workers due to automation. Its workforce declined to 40 from 120 during the Great Recession, but now has 180 employees in two factories. Kay’s president, Brian Pelke, notes that workers quickly learned to use three cobots the company purchased in 2018. The company’s first cobot, which cost $47,000, was fully operational in a month. Employees complete the tutorial on how to program it in about 90 minutes.
The company uses a cobot in its plant in St. Joseph, Mich., to package parts. Pelke told the Chicago Tribune that Kay has saved $150,000 a year by shifting packing duties away from human workers, who now measure parts, change tools and make other adjustments. Kay employees receive bonuses, too, as productivity rises, based on their performance.
What to Look For in Cobots
There is a lot to learn about cobots before purchasing them for a manufacturing facility. Among the things to consider are these:
- Focus on the application. Rather than look solely at a cobot’s plug-and-play ability, concentrate on how it will fit in with what the company actually needs. Look at how it performs specific tasks or how a system of cobot components can solve a particular problem. RightHand Robotics, for example, offers a robot tool with a three-finger gripper and a vacuum gripper that works with a cobot arm, vision technology, and software and processors as part of an overall system to help manufacturers.
- Consider complete ROI. Small and mid-size manufacturers need their automation investments to pay for themselves as quickly as possible. The average payback period is two to eight months, according to the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB). Return on investment can be calculated in part this way, which divides the cost of the cobot by the monthly salary of the worker. To calculate the total value and impact of the cobot, consider the short- and long-term tangible and intangible benefits the company will receive from its investment.
- Build in flexible deployment. For options in how cobots can be used as a plant changes or grows, look for task-agnostic platforms that can be customized and configured for a multitude of deployment types. Fetch Robotics, for example, makes autonomous mobile robots for materials handling and pick-and-place that can move materials in a warehouse and stock inventory in a logistics operation. Festo, another cobot maker, offers a lightweight pneumatic model inspired by the human arm, so that it could perform a range of tasks.
Finally, for all the sophistication of cobots, keeping their introduction into manufacturing as simple as possible may be the way to go. When the Nashville-based electronics manufacturer, Scott Fetzer Electrical Group, needed to create a mobile robotic workforce, it mounted cobots on wheels. Fetzer’s director of operations, Matt Bush, puts it this way: “When our workers come in in the morning, their task is no longer to do some monotonous task. It’s to go take the robot and deploy it to whatever job it needs to do that day.”