Posted on Feb 14, 2018

The cobots are coming, the cobots are coming!

Just as mechanical breakthroughs spurred the Industrial Revolution, advanced robotics is now revitalizing the  manufacturing industry. The current generation of robots — often referred to as cobots because they’re generally designed to collaborate with humans — are already making the mark and their impact will only continue to grow in 2018 and beyond.

But it isn’t as simple as putting cobots on the factory floor and letting them do the work. Manufacturing companies can benefit more by developing strategies that combine analytics, design thinking, workflow and other aspects of their production activities to enhance this new collaborative partnership.

Perfect Match

Manufacturing and robotics appear to be a perfect match because they both emphasize mass production. In fact, simple robots in the form of single arms have existed for years, but cobots take things to a higher level. The new generation is more mobile, more integrated with human activity and can process information faster than ever. What’s more, cobots aren’t confined to a single spot on the factory floor and can react to real-time data

As a result, both cobots and the humans they work with can make decisions in split seconds. This not only enhances production, but also improves safety, product design and, ultimately, profitability.

Five Critical Aspects

The impact is being felt in the way manufacturers operate and the skills required by their workers. These businesses are now increasingly encouraged to design strategies around workflow, operational integration, collaboration, advanced analytics and sensitivity to the human elements of a job. Here are five critical aspects of cobots to examine closely:

1. Cobots are designed to safely share workspace with humans while aiding in a variety of tasks such as assembly or packaging. Prices for cobots have ranged from about $20,000 to $30,000 per unit in recent years, depending on the functionality. But the costs are dropping and cobots are becoming more affordable to smaller manufacturing companies.

According to estimates by investment bank Barclays, providers such as Universal Robots, Rethink Robotics and FANUC are leading a charge that will result in a whopping $3.1 billion market in 2020. A steady 3% to 5% drop in prices a year is fueling the increase. As an example, the average 2015 price of $28,000 per unit is expected to fall to around $17,500 by 2025.

2. Cobots can collect and share data in real time with different systems, including manufacturing execution systems and warehouse management systems. Interfaces may be facilitated through supervisory control and data acquisition systems on the shop floor.

3. Cobots can factor in data such as temperature, humidity and assembly line speed to make decisions about the best approach to take in the circumstances and execute the appropriate action within a millisecond or even less. To do this they use advanced vision systems, lasers and sensors, and cognition and self-programming capabilities,

4. Cobots can partner with humans and that may extend to virtually any process involving a physical flow of materials. This includes creating finished goods, kitting or packing, and shipping. They could also facilitate post-production inspections. In addition, analytical reports may indicate patterns and issues that could lead to improvements in production techniques and materials.

5. Cobots can combine with augmented reality (AR). Boeing, the giant aircraft manufacturer, has used AR to reduce the time required to wire its planes by as much as 25%. Similarly, tractor manufacturer Agco is using machines equipped with “informed reality” to provide employees with information without having to use a tablet or laptop.

Even greater productivity may result when humans and cobots work independently. Typically, cobots handle repetitive tasks, while humans spend more time on activities requiring cognitive skills. Also, when safety is involved, specific processes can be automated by harnessing robotics and smart machines that leverage the Internet of Things (IoT), thus reducing human intervention and the potential for error.

Acceleration, Reduction and Increases

Success is evidenced by accelerated time to market, reduced costs and productivity gains, as well as increased sales from expanded capacity and line flexibility. With the analytic insights available from cobots, manufacturers can set their sights even higher, perhaps developing new revenue streams previously not even thought of. But it doesn’t happen overnight.

There are several key elements to this new environment that manufacturers must incorporate into their strategic thinking, including:

Human/cobot partnerships. Implementing new processes depends on analysis of the relationships between humans and cobots. Because cobots can respond to situations in less than a second, while humans take longer, consider how this will mesh on the factory floor. On the other hand, humans may have intuitions that cobots haven’t yet developed.

Workflow. Frequently, cobots can be put to work out of the box, with built-in apps providing quick deployment. To reach optimal benefits, however, manufactures must reevaluate workflow patterns. For example, a cobot might send texts to humans to alert them of malfunctions on the assembly line before they would otherwise be noticed. Similarly, a safety device employed by humans might provide the impetus for a cobot repair. It is important to develop response strategies that maximize the potential benefits.

Integration with operations. The new line of cobots is conditioned to generate data and, thus, expand on a company’s IoT initiative. With the data and analytics provided, manufacturers can anticipate problems more easily and realize opportunities to improve production, by innovating or by customizing a product. To enhance operations, businesses may use special computing equipment that can act on insights in real time.

Multiple collaborations. Generally, manufacturers have adapted to the new environment on their own, but opportunities are being presented for collaborations and joint ventures among various interested parties. For instance, resources can be pooled involving cobot designers, integrated robotics strategy advisors, design experts, systems integrators, technology experts and academicians. These emerging partnerships go beyond traditional vendor-to-supplier relationships to create networking and sharing of technological advances, generate revenue streams and new market channels, and reduce costs.

It’s clear that the time for manufacturing companies to move forward has arrived. Better unitization of cobots is critical for future survival and success. The choice seems simple: Join the cobot revolution or become a historical footnote.

 Strategies for the New Era in Manufacturing

Innovation is the most important skill needed in the manufacturing sector today, according to a recent study by IT provider Cognizant.

In the study, The Work Ahead: Designing Manufacturing’s Digital Future, 70% of respondents cited this skill and 89% said they expected this to grow in importance by 2020.

Furthermore, the study shows that an avalanche of data will trigger a greater need for analytics skills, increasing from 57% today to 75% in 2020. Workers can then benefit their employers on many fronts, including supply chain optimization, product quality and asset optimization. Respondents also said they anticipated robust growth in demand for design skills, with 70% naming this an important skill needed in 2020, up from 55% in 2018. The complete study can be found here.