Cobots Technology: The Next Big Thing in Industrial Robotics

Collaborative industrial robot technology (cobots) evolves from the possibility of a human sharing workspace with its robotic counterpart, infusing high amount of productivity and quality into the work. Cobots technology is touted as the ‘next big thing’ in robotics industry which would ideally provide an optimum solution in the form of low cost automation to the small and medium enterprises, thereby leading to a better use of human resource across industries, enhancing their overall quality and productivity.

During the course of our research and analysis of collaborative industrial robot technology, Rahul, Lead Analyst at BIS Research, spoke to Erik Nieves, Founder of PlusOne Robotics, known as a major robotics industry thought leader, who possesses around 25 years of experience deploying robotics technology and an extensive network in manufacturing automation. He primarily spoke about key dynamics occurring in collaborative industrial robot technology. The following transcript provides an insightful take on major developments occurring in the robotics industry:

Rahul: How collaborative industrial robots differ from conventional industrial robots?

Erik: Collaborative (i.e. ‘force limited’) robots are lightweight, portable, and can be used in multiple locations, whereas typical industrial robots are much heavier. There is a reason why industrial robots are much heavier than collaborative robots for the same payload. Traditional robots are much heavier because they are built for much higher specifications to provide precision and speed. Traditional robots will offer higher acceleration, shorter cycle times, and are going to last much longer. The durability of traditional robots is much greater than durability of the collaborative robots. This is why you see collaborative robots having warranty of one year and an expected life of five years whereas industrial robots can easily run for eight to ten years or more.

Rahul: Some serious players have a raised question that the absorption of technology will be slow, hence there may be somewhat flat growth seen for next two to three years. What according to you will be the growth scenario for the collaborative robot market in the next five years?

Erik: I think collaborative robots are going to grow very quickly, but they are still going to be a small part of the market, relatively speaking. Remember that there were around 150,000 industrial robots sold last year and the percentage that qualifies for collaborative is less than three percent. Yes, the growth curve may be very severe, it may grow 60% per year for the next four or five years and acquire around 10% share of the industrial robot market.

Rahul: There are four kinds of collaborative robots viz. safety monitored stop, speed and separation monitoring, power and force limiting and hand guiding collaborative robots. Can you please say what percent of the total Co-bots in use are classified as safety monitored stop, speed and separation monitoring, power and force limiting and hand guiding respectively?

Erik: The major category, of course, is the power and force limiting. So the power and force limiting is what Rethink and Universal introduced in the market and now, all the major industrial robot OEMs (Fanuc, ABB, Yaskawa, and Kuka) have also introduced. But the other modes of collaboration, that is safety monitored stop, speed and separation monitoring, and hand guiding, have been in use for many years in industrial robotics. So, it’s a problem of the terminology in the market.

Rahul: What according to you will be the major applications that will witness high usage of collaborative robots and their percentage share respectively?

Erik: Machine Tending and Material Handling. Collaborative robots lack process expertise and for collaborative robots to become successful, they must remain low cost. This precludes them from investing in the development of industrial processes, such as welding.

Rahul: What according to you will be the next big thing that could happen in collaborative robot market to make it the ‘new normal’ in the manufacturing industry?

Erik: Sensors, because even now these robots need to be programmed every time and this is detrimental to the market.  So, the next big thing will be the sensor and computing power in robotics technology. I would add that the best sensor available is manual. So part of the next big thing will be the collaboration of human sensing and cognition to robot repeatability.

Rahul: ISO 15066 is a standard devised for incorporation of safety features into collaborative robot systems and work environment but it is silent on the use of Co-bots across different applications. So, what’s your opinion on this? Don’t you think this will affect the adoption of Co-bot in large scale?

Erik: ISO 15066 is intended to give the user some direction on how to apply collaborative robots based on the four modes of the collaboration. ISO 10218 first permitted collaborative work and defined the four modes of collaboration. However, it did not say how to implement the modes of collaboration in a way it is safe to work. That’s what 15066 intends to do, to give some guidance. ISO 15066 doesn’t refer to application of the robots, it only focuses on safety aspects of the robot installation. It is up to the user to decide the application.

Rahul: What according to you are the major drivers, restraints and challenges being faced by the collaborative robot market?

Erik: Bringing collaborative robots to supplement human labor in tasks that otherwise couldn’t be automated due to costs and due to the flexibility required on the factory floor. Collaborative robots can be used in final assembly area of automotive factory where there are many people and where the tasks have a higher degree of variability. The final assembly area may have thousands and thousands of different options that the robot must perform. Often, this is not possible, so you use humans because they are adaptable. But there may be some tasks where robots may be helpful. For instance, collaborative robots are good at material handling that involves taking components and putting them in a box, or kit. So that’s the kind of work you will see robots doing in these final assembly lines. Robots will simply put the correct components in the box for the operator.

Rahul: What according to you will be the value of Global Co-bot market by 2020?

Erik: Close to $1 billion. Because demand is increasing. It is conceivable that the market demand could drive $3 billion, but the problem is with the supply chain. The traditional industrial robot market took twenty five years to reach a volume of 150,000 a year. In order for the collaborative robots market to achieve $3 billion mark, it needs to achieve 150,000 units a year in four years. I am dubious that the supply chain can do that. The suppliers of critical robot components don’t have sufficient capacity installed to meet that demand. So, what will throttle the growth of the market is not the customer, it’s the supply chain.

Rahul: Can we say that the small and medium enterprises (SME’s) coming up in the emerging economies and also in Europe and developed economies, will increasingly use collaborative robots?

Erik: Yes. Collaborative robots were initially targeted at the small manufacturers. So, they try to be low cost. But more importantly, they try to be easy to use. An easy to use robot is more valuable to an SME than to a large company, because the large companies have expertise and experience using robot technology whereas, the smaller companies don’t.  Now, that doesn’t mean you will see collaborative robots at small companies. Of course not, you will see many collaborative robots in big companies. For instance, just last week I spoke at the International Collaborative Robots Workshop (ICRW), and we had around 200 people in the room, the vast majority of which were from large companies, not small ones.  Why? Because even large companies have the problem of robots being near to people. So, they too will use collaborative robots to augment their manufacturing personnel.

BIS Research published an exhaustive report on “Global Collaborative Industrial Technology Market” earlier this month. The report provides an in-depth analysis of the key development strategies and market trend dynamics which includes drivers, restraints and opportunities prevailing in the collaborative industrial robot market. For further queries, please write to us at [email protected] or call us at : +1 650 228 0182

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