Cobots: Robots Working Together is the Future of Manufacturing
Posted by Michael S. on December 12, 2016 in Manufacturer Focus

Have you heard about these collaborative robots?! You might have seen them at 2016 IMTS or read about them in an industry magazine. Perhaps you believe in cutting edge technology or you can’t find enough employees or you think your current staff is better utilized on the more challenging and skilled tasks then the repetitive and monotonous jobs robots are designed for.


Whatever your reasons are be sure to ask yourself a few questions before you go out and spend your hard earned dollars on a collaborative robot.


The term collaborative robot, also called “cobot”, refers to robots that collaborate with humans.


The traditional robot is designed to do a specific job by itself. It is placed in a cage, programmed and left alone to do an assigned task. This task could be simple or complicated. Most robots find their way into the work place to perform the heavy lifting, dangerous jobs or the repetitive motion work that an employee may be too skilled to copmlete. For example, the automotive industry installed welding robots in the late sixties and early seventies. These robots have evolved, becoming easier to program, more flexible, and less costly. However they still have to be kept separate from humans for safety reasons. Those traditional robots only perform what they are programmed to do. They continue the work even if a human walks in front of it.


Cobots were first talked about when we entered the 21st century. However, it took a good decade to make them affordable, efficient, and effective enough to actually work within the manufacturing environment next to humans.


So what are collaborative robots? They are robots designed to work alongside of humans. They have sensors that detect humans, slowing motion or stopping motion so they will not harm their co-worker. They are easier to program, more flexible and can perform task from simple load and on-load to more complex assembly and inspection jobs.


So what do you need to ask yourself before you invest in cobots?


  1. Ask yourself the tough question: Is a cobot the right thing to do? Some companies have jumped on the collaborative robot bandwagon for the wrong reasons. Other early adaptors never saw the benefits or had a good enough ROI to justify the expense. Review the ISO 15066:2016 standard for collaborate robots. This will give you a good overview of the safety concerns and benefits.
  2. Review the tasks that you want the cobot to do. Ask if a traditional, cage robot or a cobot is the best tool for the job.
  3. Ownership. Think who will own the cobot? Is it manufacturing, the maintenance, or the engineering department? Who is responsible for set-up, maintaining, training, programming, and management of your new addition? Do you have those skills in your organization, or do you need to hire someone? This could add cost and time and impact your ROI calculation. Planning ahead will reduce your start up time and increase performance.
  4. How do you manage the implementation? We are not talking about the initial set-up. This should be done by the company that sells you your cobot. You will need to communicate the addition of one or more cobots to your work force. We all have experience with change. No matter how beneficial it might be to the bottom line it is not always well received by staff. Before you order a cobot and install it, talk to all employees why the company is doing this. Make sure you explain the reasons, so people do not fear the new technology or become concerned that their jobs might be eliminated. If you skip this step your cobot might not be as well received as you think it should be. The implementation process could take longer. Communicate with all employees not only the ones in the affected area. Even employees that do not work with or next to the new cobot will wonder what this does to their job. It is a good management practice to communicate changes that impact staff, clearly and openly to all employees.
  5. What type of training will be required? Think about who needs to be trained. People who work around the cobot are obvious. However there are many more to consider. Material handlers, quality control people as well the as maintenance staff who maintain equipment that the cobot interacts with. When you set up training, make sure your EHS team or manager is involved. There are many aspects of safety to consider as well as actual work and production.


As the landscape of US manufacturing continues to change you need to continually review and reevaluate your business needs regarding equipment. Collaborative, as well as traditional robots, can and will continue to play a big part in ensuring you stay competitive. Prepare for their implementation before they arrive on your production floor.


Discuss the above questions with your staff. When you review the answers, it will be easier to make the right decisions. If cobots might not be in your immediate future, keep reviewing the question to decide if it makes sense to add them.

Michael S. is our Manufacturing guru
I have over 30 years experience in a broad range of manufacturing areas. Starting with an apprenticeship in Germany I’ve worked my way through a variety of positions within the manufacturing field. I got my start as a Tool and Die maker. I next became a supervisor of a class A tool room, then manager of a machining department. I was exposed to lean manufacturing in the mid 90s and adapted the lean philosophy. Loving and teaching the lean approach, I moved on to become a Continuous Improvement manager which led to a job as a manufacturing manager. I joined Acuity in 2015 as their manufacturing expert. I hope to evolve how manufacturers deal with and think about insurance companies, as well as be a resource to my fellow employees – enabling them to better understand the unique needs of manufacturers.

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