Cobot collaborative robot working in a manufacturing plant

Why cobots are the 3rd wave of manufacturing automation

7 min read

By Jake Ellis on 24 January 2023

Manufacturers are currently facing unprecedented pressures to drive down the cost and increase throughput of their production processes. This has made production efficiency one of the most critical factors to the success of any manufacturing business. The best way to achieve better efficiency is to automate your production process.  In this article, we uncover what that looks like in 2023.

Table of contents

Manufacturing automation comes in stages

Manufacturing automation has been accelerated in the past through two different waves of evolution, initially with the introduction of production lines and, secondly, through the adoption of Just-in-Time manufacturing practices.

These models have been in use for decades and their benefits widely realised. Fortunately, the next wave of this manufacturing automation is upon us. Artificial Intelligence and programmable collaborative robots represent an emerging third wave of manufacturing automation. 

They are a key component of digital initiatives—particularly, those of smaller manufacturers—to gain a competitive advantage in an increasingly contested market.

How has manufacturing automation evolved?

Automation is not a new concept in manufacturing. In fact, automation in one form or another has been around for a century. With a global economy and the consumerisation of products, the manufacturing industry has had to constantly reassess and reinvent its methods to keep up with relentless competitive demands.

There have been two main waves of automation in manufacturing up until now that have geared companies to optimise their manufacturing productivity.

1. The introduction of the production line

The first wave of automation in manufacturing was the introduction of the production line and standardisation. Before the 20th century, the manufacturing of products happened at different locations and often where the raw materials needed to create the product were located.

This meant that there were many separate stages of production and the finished product often had to travel to many different locations before it was completed.  Stages of production were staggered across small teams working in isolation of one another, acting on batches of work.

The introduction of the production line answered the need to bring production stages of a product together in one location, specifically in one line.  This meant products could be manufactured in one continuous, joined-up cycle. Production lines were further refined in the standardisation model, pioneered by Henry Ford, where the product would move continuously throughout the factory through production locations where multiple stages of an assembly were completed. 

While this helped to increase the efficiency and speed of production, as businesses no longer had to wait for the product to be transported to and from different locations, it also meant that any delays in one stage of the assembly process would cripple the whole production line. As a result, it was often easier for companies to batch-produce large quantities of their product before they were released onto the market.

2. The adoption of 'just-in-time' manufacturing

Pioneered in Post-War Japan, Just-In-Time (JIT) manufacturing was the second wave of automation in manufacturing. It is a manufacturing strategy where goods are made to meet the demand in the market, rather than creating an excess of stock at scale in anticipation of demand. JIT manufacturing reduced the overall waste and production costs of manufacturing by using a lean production model.  It was particularly useful to smaller manufacturers who have a smaller initial working capital and who cannot afford to risk investing a large amount of money in the production of stock without knowing the overall market demand or having a proof of concept.

Small manufacturers can find themselves vulneable to economic shocks

While the JIT model has since spread worldwide and is widely used in most modern manufacturing models, it is susceptible to economic shocks. Unfortunately, the market has experienced several sizeable shocks over recent decades, the latest being the COVID-19 global pandemic.

Talent shortages, alongside the increasing costs of raw materials, have disrupted the cash flow in many small manufacturing businesses, and have made it more difficult to meet production targets. 

Without an excess of previously manufactured stock to fall back on, some businesses have suffered with revenue losses, making it incredibly hard for these businesses to recover from the pandemic.

Worker inspecting the production line

3. Robotics and the collaborative robot revolution

While these last two waves have characterised automation in manufacturing over the last century, they are no longer enough to meet the demands and challenges facing logistics companies today.

With a widespread talent shortage and global disruption to production, cycles, and manufacturers need a new method to optimise their production lines. Luckily, cobots are that solution.

Large industrial robots are too expensive for many manufactures

Large industrial robots have long been integrated into the production lines of large manufacturers to automate the assembly and distribution of products.

However, industrial robots require a large initial investment which makes them too expensive for small and medium-sized manufacturing companies.   

Consequently, the benefits of automation bring have only been enjoyed by those who have been able to afford the high entry costs of robotics. Fortunately, with the introduction of new collaborative robots, that is changing.

Cobots are the solution

Cobots were invented in 1996 by J. Edward Colgate and Micheal Peshkin and their company released its first cobot the following year.

They have since been made more widely commercially available through many different companies, such as Universal Robots.

Yet, their initial adoption was slow. This is because they are not an off-the-shelf product and have to be integrated into existing manufacturing workspaces and processes.

External technology partners can help

The main reason why cobots are not expanding at a greater rate has more to do with the lack of knowledge and awareness of the solution-building they offer.

Here, technology partners such as Automate can guide your business through every step of the design, planning and implementation process, while also providing full aftercare and support once your cobot has been installed.

How do cobots fit into my existing production line?

Part of the reason why cobots are the next wave of evolution in manufacturing automation is how easily they can fit into existing production lines. While large, industrial robots require a significant amount of space in being ringfenced away from human workers, collaborative robots are designed to work in much smaller spaces and alongside humans.

External technology partners are here to help

An external technology partner such as Automate will be able to walk you through the best implementation solution for your business. This means that you will get this process right the first time around and won’t need to waste time or resources, trying to reconfigure your production lines to find the optimal place for a cobot.

Picking, packing and palletizing

Cobots are best suited to picking, packing and palletizing tasks. These are some of the frequent and fundamental tasks on the production line. They are often repetitive and can become tiresome for human workers who struggle to meet KPIs. This only serves to dampen morale in the workplace and push talent away from your business.

Indeed, the talent shortage in manufacturing is being driven by workers reassessing the work-life balance since the pandemic.

A survey by Microsoft found that 41% of the global workforce in 2022 were considering quitting and finding a new role within a year.

Many workers are choosing to avoid repetitive tasks and instead follow their own path of personal and career development in more creative roles. Instead, a cobot can help speed up the picking, packing and palletizing processes with automation, as well as increase the overall efficiency of your processes.

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What are the advantages of cobots?

The reason why cobots are the next wave of automation in manufacturing is that they offer significant benefits to production processes that have the potential to change the competitive advantage in the market.

The ROI is bigger than you think

The first, and perhaps most important benefit of cobots is their relatively cheap cost. This is not only because they require a smaller initial investment to install and integrate within your existing production lines, but also because they provide a quick return on investment.

Here it is important to understand that the initial costs of installation, training and implementation are offset by the potential savings in hiring costs, employee salaries and overall efficiency. This is because the cost to hire an employee is actually far higher than just their salary.

One study has estimated that the average cost of hiring an employee in the first year of their employment reaches a total of 2.3 times their annual salary.

Cobots are the most loyal worker you can have

In the aftermath of the so-called Great Resignation, having a cobot, who will never leave you, provides businesses with security in their production plans. When all this is taken into account, the average time taken to make a complete return on your investment is between 1-2 years.

Putting safety first

Collaborative robots are also incredibly safe. This is because they have been designed to work with humans rather than around them. There are several types of cobots based on their programming and safety features, such as force-limiting or safety-monitored stop cobots, but all cease operations when encountering a human—sensors detect when there is a force resisting their movement and causing them to stop.

This means that cobots don’t require the workspace demanded by traditional industrial robots. Furthermore, they don’t need to be ringfenced on the production line. This releases floorspace and increases the scope of functional roles cobots can do, given they can work ‘cheek by jowl’ with human operators.

The advantages of flexible automation

Cobots can be used as a tool for flexible automation in production processes to perform a variety of different tasks. Rather than remaining in a fixed location and being difficult to program, cobots can be moved around on the production line to where they are needed. 

Additionally, cobots can be rapidly retrained to perform different tasks through ‘hand-guiding technology’ (this is when, a human worker can replicate the desired function of the cobot through their hand movements to teach the cobot the correct movements required for material handling). 

As the result, the role of cobots can adapt throughout their lifetime as production designs evolve.

Cobots work together

Multiple collaborative robots can be programmed to work together on the same automated task according to the specificities of your needs.  In this way, they simulate 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.

Want to adopt smarter manufacturing in 2023?  Collaborative robots are the answer

With the market so hotly contested and the challenges and pressures facing manufacturing companies increasing, businesses need to rethink their production processes to survive. Adaptive manufacturing automation that responds to peaks and troughs in demand and component supply is now more achievable for small and medium-sized manufacturers than ever thanks to cobots.

Robotics is increasingly viewed as the 3rd wave in the evolution of automation.   Manufacturers which incorporate robots within production design can expect to gain a competitive advantage in the market over their competitive rivals.

An external technology solutions partner, like Automate Partner, can guide you through the introduction of cobots into your business and ensure that you are not left behind with the next wave of evolution.