Image credit: Universal Robotics
Boeing and Proctor and Gamble are great examples of successful automation in manufacturing, but what about small and medium-sized manufacturers? Do the same efficiencies exist for a sock manufacturer in the South or a cookie manufacturer out West? And what about costs—is robotic automation even affordable for a manufacturer with sub-multimillion dollar revenue?
One realistic option is cobots, or collaborative robots that work alongside humans. Unlike robots that are kept behind safety gates and separate from employees, cobots join in and help with specific tasks on the floor. Since first being introduced in 2008, a steady stream of strong-armed cobots have joined the workforce. Research from Loup Ventures shows that 3,385 units were sold in 2015, and that number jumped to 35,642 in 2019. Loup forecasts that unit sales will reach 317,608 in 2025.
Cobot crews are remarkably versatile. They come in a range of sizes and they have different payload capabilities, reach distances, and operating speeds, and they can be outfitted to do all sorts of tasks. They can be anchored vertically or horizontally to remain stationary or be equipped with mobile capabilities to safely roam through workspaces. Most often these automation motivators--which include cameras, sensors, and software--handle repetitive, dangerous, dirty, or tedious tasks with humans at their sides.
- Perform quality control using high-definition cameras to detect non-standard or defective products;
- Pick any item and place it in another location for packing or sorting in pick-and-place scenarios;
- Handle repetitive packaging, assembly, and loading of pallets;
- Tighten or loosen small objects in areas difficult or dangerous for humans to reach;
- Carry out tasks such as replacing materials or changing tools.
At Tool Gauge in Tacoma, WA, two cobots from Universal Robots help the manufacturer and its 100-plus employees make both precision metal and plastic components for aerospace customers. Tool Gauge installed one cobot to dispense glue into plastic extruded parts, a job that for humans was repetitive, difficult, and could lead to potential injuries. Another cobot places parts in a rinse bath, holds them up in front of a dryer, and drops them into individual cardboard cells. Since adding the cobots, Tool Gauge has doubled production and delivered labor savings up to 75 percent.
Image credit: Universal Robots
Solution Integrators Join the Cobot Coalition
In this growth market, companies are still learning about cobots, and solution integrators have a strong part to play in educating the small and mid-sized manufacturers about their benefits. There are some serious pros. For starters, integration needs are minimal. This set of manufacturers isn’t looking for deep integration or an overhaul of their current systems or processes. Integrators can step in and help find the right cobot for the specific task.
Price point is another significant pro. An average collaborative robot base cost is roughly $35,000. Outfitting the cobot with the necessary tools adds another $15,000. Options can include grippers with tactile sensitivity to improve and adjust grip, accelerometers to detect bumps and nearby movements, 3D-vision cameras to detect objects, and force torque or feedback sensors. While prices will range lower ($15,000) for the more simply designed cobots, they get more expensive as they become more complex ($45,000).
Even the most complex cobots don’t require extensive technical expertise or a degree in engineering—another advantage. Set up is simple and quick, and many of the cobots and solution kits work out of the box with minimal programming through a smartphone or tablet. In fact, some require no programming knowledge at all. Integrators such as Olmia Robotics and Vikaso specialize in cobot integration, and others have added cobots to their regular offerings.
Cobot integrator Vectis Automation in Fort Collins, CO, built a business model around supporting welders and helping them to be more productive. By partnering with Universal Robots, Vectis can focus on adding value by tailoring the cobot, application, equipment, and software to the customer’s application. Integrator Fusion has a similar story, helping small and medium-sized machine shops automate the care and management of CNC mills and lathes with cobots. The company deployed four cobots on its own OEM floor and realized a 50 percent production rate.
To learn more about cobots:
- Register for Robotics Week’s free virtual event, September 8-September 11.
- Hear from Eric Thompson, Senior Consultant, IoT, Specialized Solution Practice, at Tech Data Corporation about cobots and their role in the smart factory of the future. Listen to the IoT Integrator Wire podcast.