The manufacturing sector has typically been among the first to benefit from technological innovation, particularly in the field of robotics and automation. Traditional industrial robotic systems usually require the use of peripheral safety equipment and physical barriers for the safety of human co-workers. However, the features designed to protect human workers tend to increase cost and space requirements.
Also, the current market demands a reduction in lead times, as well as mass customisation, which, in turn, require flexibility and the use of multi-purpose assembly systems. These needs are common among small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). This is why it falls on manufacturers to find a solution that not only addresses problems with cost and space availability but also the need to provide customised solutions to customer needs in the shortest time possible.
The solution – collaborative robots
Collaborative robots (or cobots) help address existing challenges in assembly line work and manufacturing tasks by enabling human-robot collaboration (HRC) within the same workflow and a common workspace. Aside from this, the use of collaborative robots provides the following benefits:
- HRC produces superior quality work than, say, if the robot or human were to work independently while aiming for the same objective. For example, the human counterpart can provide motion power for a specific task while the robot focuses on ensuring high-precision work outcomes.
- Cobots can be easily and efficiently reprogrammed during manufacturing changeovers through the use of human-machine interfaces (HMIs). There’s no need for experts to conduct the reprogramming themselves. In fact, their human co-worker or counterpart can facilitate the reprogramming on HMI tablets or smartphones, so there’s no significant interruption in the workflow.
- Cobots can handle repetitive, physically taxing and high-risk tasks. Robots can perform tasks at full speed without the risk of human injury. You can count on them to efficiently perform pre-programmed repetitive, monotonous, boring tasks that humans eventually tire of. They can handle heavy lifting tasks, as well as processes where precision and speed are a priority, as in the case of the automobile and food manufacturing industries. They can easily sense catastrophic environments by making objective data calculations and using these for evaluation purposes. This way, collaborative robots can be used to prevent accidents and loss of lives.
- Cobots are more affordable and easier to operate and maintain. Compared to traditional robots, collaborative robots are cheaper since they are designed to perform a single explicit task.
- Cobots can easily detect nonstandard activity within their immediate work environment. This means that problems can be easily resolved and troubleshooting is quickly facilitated where necessary.
- Cobots are usually lightweight, making them easy to move and assign where they are needed. This is a major benefit for SMEs that have budgetary restrictions and which prioritise maximising their available equipment.
- Cobots help manufacturing companies achieve greater productivity. By automating certain tasks, work becomes more manageable, targets can be easily achieved, and downtimes are minimised.
- Cobots reduce strain on production employees. Certain production processes that were previously human-dependent can be automated and safely handled by grippers and HRC robots.
- Cobots can help reduce costs and wastage. Although the initial investment may be substantial during the process of adopting this new technology, the use of collaborative robots can mean cost and material savings. Programming and the use of precision technology will allow you to maximise resources and prevent unnecessary waste.
In sum, the HRC model successfully combines the human ability to judge, react, and plan with a robot’s strength and repeatability of actions.
Uses of cobots in manufacturing
The versatility and wide applicability of collaborative robots make them particularly useful in a variety of manufacturing tasks such as:
- Welding: Manufacturing plants usually list welding and soldering among their most cumbersome tasks, even as there are fewer professional welders around. Yet welding and soldering are inevitable activities in a manufacturing setting. Cobots specifically designed to take charge of welding can continue working even in the absence of their human counterparts.
- Picking, packing, and palletising: Manual tasks like picking, packing, and palletising are time-consuming, labour-intensive, and mind-numbing. This is especially true in large warehouses and factories where such tasks never seem to end. By employing cobots, you not only help speed up work, perform tasks with minimal risks and improve productivity. You also prevent mistakes from happening – mistakes that can lead to major losses due to negative reviews and complaints from disgruntled customers.
- Assembly line tasks: The most monotonous, stressful and boring tasks in manufacturing involve some form of assembly line work. And when human workers are bored and stressed, they are bound to make mistakes. These errors and oversights can lead to huge company losses and lawsuits, such as in the case of products that pose safety risks. These mistakes not only adversely affect the bottom line but can also ruin brand reputation. These risks are eliminated or reduced with collaborative robots working in tandem with their human co-workers in a supervisory role.
- Materials handling: For humans, moving materials in a manufacturing unit can be a tedious, wearisome process. By using cobots to automate these tasks, manufacturers can efficiently meet production deadlines and fulfil customer requirements. Cobots can not only be counted on to move materials quickly but also take care of moving hazardous raw materials safely, without the need for direct human action. This helps ensure worker health
and safety and faster turnaround times.
- Product quality inspections: Product quality and profitability are dependent on the application of stringent quality standards. Manufactured products need to meet strict quality checks without fail. However, humans can get tired or fatigued and can commit errors of judgement. As well, the human eye (especially when tired) cannot be expected to spot every single crack or blemish in each product. This is where cobots designed to perform quality inspections tasks with 100% accuracy can make a huge difference. Even the smallest flaws or defects cannot escape detection with cobots, so that appropriate action from concerned officers and departments can be initiated. This can result in a reduction of operating costs, better quality production outcomes and faster cycle times.
The future of robot-human collaboration
When it comes to utilising collaborative robots, the sky is the limit for us humans as HRC can be adopted to work in various industries. Cobots can be designed and deployed to perform different functions and achieve specific outcomes.
HRC helps simplify production steps, reduces direct costs and minimises downtime. It also contributes to the reduction of stress on human co-workers who no longer need to contend with monotonous, boring and potentially unsafe tasks. It also streamlines the entire production process, thereby resulting in improved workflow and higher output.
Collaborative robots essentially function as assistants to factory workers. And as robots handle repetitive and or dangerous tasks, their human counterparts can focus on being creative and improving manufacturing processes. This arrangement also indirectly results in better attendance and work performance as workers are happier and less stressed.
So, HRC is not about robots replacing humans or taking away jobs meant for humans. It’s simply a matter of realigning who does what. Cobots can work on processes that can be automated, while their human partners can focus on analytical work and innovation – it’s an excellent synergistic formula that can substantially benefit manufacturing industries.