What are collaborative robots (cobots)?

9 min read

By Jake Ellis on 22 November 2022

Automation and the introduction of robots to your workforce is seen by many as an expensive and arduous process.

Many small businesses that could benefit from a collaborative robot are unaware of their practical applications—and the potential they offer.

That is changing—and fast.  With the world of work changing, talent becoming ever harder to find, and an ever-increasing squeeze on budgets and demand, companies today are looking for new ways to automate and streamline their work.

Luckily, cobots are here to help.

They are specifically designed to work alongside humans to aid in production and logistical processes, rather than to take over them completely. This means they are considerably less expensive and complicated than traditional industrial robots.

As a result, they are perfectly placed to help production in both large and small businesses. But what exactly is a cobot and how can they be used in your business?

Table of contents

How the world of work is changing

The economic and social shocks facing small manufacturing businesses

The first cobot was invented in 1996 by J. Edward Colgate and Micheal Peshkin, and was commercially available the following year. However, initially, the adoption of collaborative robots in small manufacturing businesses was relatively slow.

Yet, with the economic and social shocks of the pandemic, the global cost of living crisis, and the war in Ukraine, the way we work and manage our businesses has changed. Competitive pressures on hiring managers and product-centric businesses have increased tremendously.

Many workers are reevaluating when and how they work, seeking to strike a better work-life balance. It’s become harder to retain workers in tedious and unfulfilling roles. This has caused a global skills shortage, pushing labor supply problems to the top of priority lists for manufacturers and supply chains.

Talent shortages have been felt especially hard by small manufacturing companies and those with smaller workforces. A small percentage of their workforce missing can have a considerable effect on overall productivity and profitability of the business.

The solution to this for large businesses has traditionally been investing in greater automation through traditional industrial robots which have helped automate entire workflow processes and are designed to work in a fixed area, on specific tasks.

The time and cost to implement this level of automation is often significantly higher than small businesses can afford. However, the development of cobots has made automation a viable solution for smaller businesses. It has lowered the price of entry into the robotic market and has made the time-to-value of implementing automation much faster.

The first cobot was invented in 1996 by J. Edward Colgate and Micheal Peshkin and was commercially available the following year when their company released its first cobot. However, since then, the adoption of collaborative robots into small manufacturing businesses has been relatively slow.

Lowering the price of entry has increased competitive pressures

This itself has massively increased the competitive pressures within the market for small manufacturing. As the price of entry for automation has lowered, so more businesses are able to justify and afford the introduction of cobots in their production plans. This means that those businesses who are yet to adopt any form of automation within their workspace are at a significant competitive disadvantage.

In their annual intralogistics report, Gartner found that by 2026, 75% of large enterprises in product-centric businesses will have adopted some form of intralogistics smart robots in their warehouse operations.

Cobots are the solution to increased automation

It is not only the increased cost and time to implement that has held small manufacturing businesses back from adopting traditional industrial robots. The size and capabilities of these robots are not suited to many small manufacturing operations. They must be programmed specifically for one logistical function.

In contrast, cobots are designed to perform a range of tasks, such as picking, packing and palletizing, across their lifetime.

Cobots are a much more mobile robot and can be redeployed throughout their lifetime, depending on the tasks they can achieve. By being able to work alongside humans, cobots can be used as both an apparatus and method in small manufacturing to help increase automation and productivity.

What makes cobots unique?

The idea of working alongside a robot may seem strange to many human workers.

In most large manufacturing settings, human workers are increasingly being replaced by traditional industrial robots, with only a handful remaining for quality inspection and robot programming.

Yet, this does not have to be the case. Instead, cobots offer businesses the ability to supplement their existing human workforce with a significant degree of robot automation.

Can cobots work alongside humans?

The biggest concern for many businesses when considering bringing industrial robots into their workplace is health and safety.

With industrial robots exerting large forces during operation alongside the large reach and magnetic grippers that traditional industrial robots can have, it often means human workers must take significant precautions when working near them. This is not the case with collaborative robots.

As cobots are designed to work alongside humans, they can be used without the need for fencing or machine tending. They have multiple sensors that can detect any kind of force or resistance acting on it, such as a human worker coming into contact with it, which will cause it to either slow down or stop automatically depending on the cobot type.

There are in fact 4 different types of cobots to choose from, characterised by their safety protocols:

1. Force Limiting Cobots

These are the most common form of cobot and will stop when they sense any kind of human resistance against their movement. This means that they do not need to be fenced off from human workers, as they pose no risk. As a result, these cobots are great for use in small areas and workspaces.

2. Safety Monitored Stop Cobots

Safety monitored stop cobots will cease their work when a human worker enters their workspace. They use a variety of sensors to detect the presence of a human worker within a particular boundary, and will automatically resume work when their workspace is clear, eliminating the need to restart it every time it stops.

They are best suited to tasks where the cobots primarily work alone and without frequent human interaction.

3. Speed and Separation Cobots

This type of cobot is similar to safety monitored stop cobots, but instead of stopping when they detect the presence of a human, they slow down their activity. These cobots will only stop when the human worker gets within reach of the cobots operation.

These cobots are best suited for primarily working alone but require human workers to have easy and ready access to it.

4. Hand Guiding Cobots

These cobots are designed to be guided in their operation by a human worker. This means that the cobot can still be in operation while in direct contact with a human worker. This is specifically useful in production areas where cobots move around to different stations and are not in a fixed location.

They are best suited when human workers need to program cobots frequently and often. 

As a result, it is completely safe for humans to interact with cobots while they are in operation. Collaborative robots have been designed to prioritize the safety of human workers above all else.

All collaborative robots are programmed to switch off if a human worker enters their workspace or touches it while it is working to ensure that no harm can come to the human worker because of the cobot. This is starkly different to traditional industrial robots designed to operate continuously, which must be shut down completely if someone comes into contact with them.

What can a cobot do?

It’s clear that collaborative robots are a safe and cost-efficient way to automate your work processes, but what tasks are they best used for?

Collaborative robots can be used for a wide variety of logistical tasks within manufacturing, the most notable being picking, packing and palletizing.

These tasks are often repetitive and tedious, negatively impacting the job satisfaction, not to mention the long-term health, of human workers. Yet these tasks are perfect for a collaborative robot.

1. Picking

Collaborative robots can lift objects from one location and place them at another. While this may seem a simple task for human workers, it is this simplicity that makes it a process best suited to automation. The sensors and vision systems of cobots enable them to look for the object they are programmed to pick up and place it onto a conveyor belt or another moving object.

2. Packing

Once the collaborative robot has picked the desired item, it can also pack your products to protect them from any damage. As they do not require a large fenced working area, most cobots can be easily integrated into the packaging line and can handle products of any size or shape. They are also much more flexible in the introduction of new products or changes to the packaging than traditional industrial robots. This means they can safely and efficiently complete all of the packaging work needed in a production line alongside human workers.

3. Palletizing

The final step in this process is the palletizing of various different packaging ready for distribution. Much like picking, this task is often repetitive and tedious, but also requires the intelligence to check that the packaging is ordered in the most efficient way when being palletized. This step can often be prone to human error, causing damage or loss of capacity. However, a cobot can be quickly reprogrammed and adapt to any changes to the palletizing process, whilst also remaining extremely efficient and avoiding human error.

Moreover, according to the specificities of your needs, multiple collaborative robots can be programmed to work together on the same automated task, thereby simulating a team of human workers.

As a result, collaborative robots should be seen as the best antidote to both the higher entry costs of traditional industrial robots and the tedium of repetitive logistical tasks for human workers.

What is the typical ROI of a cobot?

Cobot Return on Investment

When making a significant investment to your workforce, you may rightly ask when you can expect to see a return on it. With cobots, there are many variables you need to consider when calculating your expected ROI.

Firstly, it is important to consider the design, implementation and ongoing support of the robot, in addition to the initial cost of the hardware. Luckily, these costs require a much smaller upfront investment, which means they offer a better ROI than more sophisticated robots for small manufacturers.

These costs must be balanced against the savings that a robot affords in the replacement of a human worker. While this calculation will be unique to you, the average ROI is between 1 and 2 years. This means that cobots offer a time-to-value that has both a low cost of entry and a quick ROI. This is ideal for both large and small manufacturing businesses.

Cobots working in a factory

Where to begin with cobot integration

Starting the process of integrating collaborative robots can often seem daunting to those who have never invested in automation before. But that does not need to be the case. Luckily, there are technology partners to help source, program and implement a unique cobot solution for your business.

Cobots can be programmed by a technology partner to help ease the pain of integration within your business.

As part of this process, they take full responsibility for the design and implementation of the cobot. This includes a simulation of how collaborative robots can be used specifically within your business and production processes.

They will then assess and analyse your production processes to recommend a cobot solution that balances your wishes and production needs.

Next, they will implement and maintain your cobots at the same time as providing ongoing support including any reprogramming or design changes.  The great thing about cobots is that they can work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for many years when properly maintained.

Finally, your cobot will probably need programming edits over the years as your production changes.  Having a partner on hand to adapt your production makes sense, particularly for small manufacturing companies that lack the know-how and internal resources to do this.

Final thoughts

If you are the boss or production manager of a small manufacturing company, what are the key take-away points on collaborative robots that you should remember when it comes to budget time?

1.Picking, packing and palletising collaborative robots offer the best ROI of all intralogistics robots, and should be at the top of your list when considering automation in your production plans. They can work 24/7 FOR LIFE and yield significant production economies by bringing to bear a unique blend of ease of use and a quick return on investment, all while adhering to strict and non-invasive safety protocols.

2. A lack of knowledge and awareness around cobot solution building is the main reason why the technology is not expanding at a faster pace. This is primarily because they are not an off-the-shelf product and have to be integrated into existing manufacturing workspaces and processes. Here, technology partners such as Automate Partner can guide your business through every step of the design, planning and implementation processes, while also providing full aftercare and support once your cobot has been installed.

3. Appreciating the art of the possible is key. Most manufacturing companies don’t know what tasks can be fulfilled by cobots or realise their potential. Fortunately, thanks to a maturing robot industry, accessing the collaborative solutions with a technology partner has never been easier.

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