For all the huffing and puffing about how important industrial automation is, it can be rather hard for smaller plants to break into when you consider all of the moving parts needed- IoT devices, tailored industrial PCs, required software, not to mention more advanced, sophisticated solutions like artificial intelligence that require teams of employees to manage. Nevertheless, the market has been set to explode for quite some time, with some like Acumen Research and Reporting claiming the industry is set to hit 287.9 billion by 2026. With such promises, it’s not like any self-respecting manufacturer can afford to look away even if they can’t necessarily afford a massive investment into industrial automation solutions

If only there were something small, something automated and low cost that could help these businesses wade into the waters of automation without having to cannonball into the deep end. Fortunately, for those looking to test the waters (to keep this swimming analogy going) collaborative robots in manufacturing could be the answer.

Collaborative Robots Definition

Collaborative Robots, or “Cobots”, are robots designed to work alongside and in conjunction with humans in a shared workspace. Unlike more traditional robots, Cobots aren’t designed to be autonomous. Instead, they are employed to help human workers perform dirty, dangerous, or repetitive tasks.

What makes these machines such an effective first step into automation is the fact that they are designed to be collaborative in this way. Because they aren’t made to be fully autonomous, they don’t require the same sophisticated data-reading tools and capabilities say an AI or machine vision program would require, making them cheaper while also eliminating the need for as much specialized staff. 

That said, despite their simplicity, these machines still stand to deliver quite a bit of value to the average facility. According to MIT research, human to robot collaboration has been observed to be 85% more productive than either having a human or a robot work alone.

Things to Consider

Just because these collaborative robots in manufacturing are beginner friendly, doesn’t mean they’re plug-and-play solutions or that they don’t require their fair share of consideration in how they’re deployed. If you’re a smaller plant looking to dabble in the solution, you’ll want to make sure you firmly understand the tech and software needed to run these machines.

Additionally, you’ll want to account for their energy consumption as well in order to ensure you aren’t losing out on any ROI by investing in an energy guzzler of a machine.

Finally, consider employee safety as well. Many of these machines will require caging or fencing if they’re using dangerous tools such as cutting equipment.

Even with all these considerations in mind, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more cost-conscious first delving into industrial automation, though many proper robots will provide more of an ROI if you have the tools needed to run and maintain them efficiently. Thankfully, collaborative robots in manufacturing can be a stepping stone towards understanding what’s required to run actual robots and can still deliver value as an educational experience. 

Collaborative Robots Applications

Collaborative robots in manufacturing are hardly lacking in the use-case department. In fact, collaborative robots applications are only limited by the creativity of the factories and plants that implement them. Below are only a few of the most common use cases to consider if you want to dip your toe into automation and cobots.

1.) Pick and Place

Pick and place procedures are a perfect example of repetitive, mundane tasks that can be streamlined with the incorporation of Cobots. These tasks include anything that involves moving a workpiece from one place to another. Simply moving a tool to where it’s needed or moving a product from one step of a production process to another can be labeled as a “pick and place” procedure. 

Cobots in manufacturing can run pick and place functions, allowing workers to handle adjacent tasks that require more human input and won’t cause repeated strain injuries (as many pick and place procedures can and do). 

As far as further advancing into automation using collaborative robots, these pick and place functions can be enhanced and performed with zero input from humans with machine vision implementation.

2.) Packaging

Cobots can also be used to properly prepare products for shipment. In collaboration with a human worker, they can do everything from shrink-wrapping and box assembly to product loading or even palleting. Again, these tasks can cause injury and often are very repetitive, mundane tasks that don’t really need as much human broadband as is being currently taken.

The beauty of cobots is that, should you decide to further automate with machine vision or AI, they can be advanced with functionalities like conveyor belt tracking so they can be employed on conveyor lines across the floor.

3.) Interaction-Based Processes

Processes that require a tool to interact with a different tool/product such as welding or gluing are repetitive and require very specific finishes. Cobots in manufacturing, thankfully, can be programmed to run repeated tasks in the exact same pattern for consistent product quality and finishes. This can easily transition into saved time and money on broken products, quality control issues, and employee training. 

4.) Quality Control

Speaking of quality control, though it may be an application that requires a little more investment in automation, cobots can be outfitted with cameras to snap images of products across several stages in the supply chain, run them in comparison to other images of what a product should look like, and notify proper employee with QC concerns.  

5.) Finishing

Finishing” tasks, ones that require repetitive action and the application of force can cause injury. Cobots can be equipped with force and pressure control hardware that allows them to run tasks such as these like polishing, grinding, and more. With a cobot, humans can control these machines instead of using the actual hardware that they would have to employ for finishing tasks that could possibly injure them.  

How Can You Get Started with Collaborative Robots in Manufacturing?

 We mentioned before that cobots in manufacturing are not plug-and-play. If you plan on implementing them, make sure you know exactly what processes you plan on automating and who needs to be trained to handle these new machines. Furthermore, if there are certain pieces of software or data gathering tools that need to be implemented to run these machines, make sure your HMI panels or industrial tablets can support them. Additionally, if the machine is going to be welding, grinding, or doing any kind of task that generates a lot of debris, make sure that same hardware can stand up to the task. Something IP65 certified will ensure that debris doesn’t enter the hardware and cause a breakdown and cost you money.

Cobots in Manufacturing are Beginner and Veteran-Friendly

Collaborative robots in manufacturing might just be the perfect way to dabble in automation while the industry, and the world, adapt to a new normal. Small investments now in these standalone solutions can help familiarize your facility with robots, tech integration, and automation without breaking the bank. And once you’ve determined you’re ready to take the next step, further investment in solutions like machine vision and AI can help slowly advance your supply chain into an enhanced state of operating. For more information on how your plant can get started, contact an expert from Cybernet today.