According to the IFR (International Federation of Robotics) ‘World Robotics Report 2019’ (www.is.gd/idivab), the vast amount of media coverage devoted to collaborative robots, also known as cobots, is somewhat at odds with the actual number of units installed, which it says is still low. “In 2018, less than 14,000 out of more than 422,000 industrial robots installed were cobots,” it reports. “This is a 3.24% share.” The year before that, the figure was roughly 11,100 units out of a total of almost 400,000. “From 2017 to 2018, annual installations of cobots increased by 23%,” it adds.
However, with a growing number of manufacturers proclaiming notable productivity and other gains from bringing cobots into the fold, the brakes appear to be coming off, as the IFR’s general secretary Dr Susanne Bieller confirms. “Cobots are already benefiting enormously from recent technological developments and innovation, especially in the field of image and sensor data processing, smart and sensitive gripping technology for handling delicate products and direct human contact,” she explains. “Also, usability and programmability are becoming more and more intuitive.”
In the future, developments in the field of machine learning, in particular, will advance the cobots even further, Bieller adds.
ELASTIC & ADAPTABLE
Another reason cobots appear to be gaining traction in the UK is due to a maturing economy. “We no longer have a huge pool of cheap labour to call on, so the motivation to look beyond the traditional robot to redress that imbalance is there,” says Mark Gray, UK sales manager at Universal Robots (UR). Equally, automation has customarily been inflexible, expensive and involves extensive set-up. “Cobots allow companies to be much more elastic and adaptable in the way they perform tasks. Take the manual inserting of moulded parts into fixtures, such as wing mirrors – what you might call ‘screwdriver parts’. This has often been the cause of repetitive strain injuries. Cobots are ideally suited for carrying out such jobs, allowing the workforce to contribute more usefully, while also removing dead production time.”
While cobots are recognised as more nimble, versatile and mobile than traditional robots, there have been questions raised as to their safety, but Gray feels these are unfounded. “The idea of robots working in free space may be new, but we are talking about systems that are limited in speed, of much lighter weight and closely controlled through collaboration.”
The possibilities for employing cobots in the UK are almost untapped, he states. “There are thousands of tasks that cobots could take over where industrial robots are over-specified and a wasted resource. This is demonstrated by one our customers, Invertek Drives, a global designer and manufacturer of variable frequency drives (VFDs).
“Previously, the company’s testing phase was subject to repetitive and manual checks. This saw the company’s testing cycles incur lengthy turnaround times. Since incorporating a UR5 cobot into its operation, it can now complete the same task in as little as 10 minutes, which has significantly improved its part consistency and increased throughput, while upskilling its human workforce to focus on more rewarding tasks.”
The UR5 is one of several cobot technologies among the UR range (www.is.gd/inonox). It is described as a ‘lightweight, adaptable collaborative industrial robot’ that can tackle ‘medium-duty’ applications and has been designed for integration into a ‘wide range of applications’.
RANGE OF TASKS
Recognising the growth potential of cobots in the UK, Mills CNC, exclusive distributor of Doosan cobots, has set up a new division specifically to drive up sales of industrial robots and cobots. “Doosan cobots are designed to perform a range of tasks that include CNC machine tool tending, testing and inspection, through to packaging, palletising, assembly and ‘pick and place’ operations,” explains Peter McCullough, product manager for Doosan Robotics at Mills CNC. “Wherever an operator performs a task, you can have a cobot working instead of that person, or beside that person.”
The elimination of repetitive tasks is often referenced in support of cobots and McCullough endorses that, but also points to quality and safety factors. “Take ultrasonic welding, for example. There might be 10-12 welds on a part. A mundane task, yes, but if an operator is doing this all day, the possibility of a weld being missed is very real and that creates serious quality issues. A cobot will do this all day long, without fatigue and with total accuracy.”
One Mills CNC customer using cobot technology to help improve productivity levels is Arrowsmith Engineering, a specialist in precision turning, milling, thread rolling and grinding. The robotic cell installed at its 20,000 ft2 facility comprises a Doosan DNM 4500 vertical machining centre, equipped with a 4th-axis unit and a M0617 cobot (www.is.gd/aqukal) with a 1.7m reach radius and 6kg payload capacity. It is also equipped with a Schunk Co-act EGP-C electrically-driven two finger parallel gripper.
Arrowsmith Engineering is using the cell to ramp up production of a precision engine part that it manufactures for customers in Spain and the US. By adopting ‘lights-out’ production, the cell operates 24/7, enabling the company to manufacture and supply 200 components every month.
Some industry observers, though, are not as quick to champion the cobot cause. Nigel Smith, president and CEO of Toshiba machine partners TM Robotics, points out that, while industrial robots do generally cost more up-front than cobots, they can provide entirely different levels of performance.
“Also, there’s much more to consider than the first financial transaction. For one thing, pricing structures are changing, meaning industrial robots are now becoming a more viable option for small businesses,” he says. “Whether we’re discussing cobots or industrial robots, a challenge for small-to medium-sized manufacturers is determining the actual cost of ownership when investing in automation. These are the additional costs of maintenance, energy consumption and additional equipment requirements that enable the safe usage of the robot.”
By way of example, he cites how a risk assessment may determine that a cobot needs extra fencing, or force limiters, if it is to be used safely alongside humans. “This is a very common occurrence for misinformed cobot purchasers. Manufacturers would be forgiven for believing that cobots are automatically safe to use alongside humans, but this isn’t always the case.”
ARC Advisory Service’s industry analyst and OEM manager Fabian Wanke also highlights some inhibitors. “A lack of qualified training and support, end user reluctance to adopt new technologies, global economic headwinds and currency fluctuations are among several factors that could hold back cobot investment,” he cautions.
Rajkumar Paira, ARC senior analyst and key author of its ‘Collaborative Robots Global Market 2017-2022’ report (www.is.gd/cayaju), also points to a potential downside for the unwary. “As cobots become connected to internal systems for data collection, cybersecurity risks increase. Manufacturers will be forced to address vulnerabilities in their processes and invest heavily in cybersecurity to ensure safe, reliable production.”
BOX: PLUG & PLAY
One company determined to be a part in the cobot revolution is Hurco Europe, which snapped up Pittsburgh manufacturer ProCobot in 2019. Hurco is developing plug-and-play solutions built around the ProCobot systems that, it is hoped, will offer ‘seamless integration’ with an application being tested in the Hurco machine's proprietary WinMAX control. There are four standard products of varying sizes in the ProCobot range, all suited to feeding lathes or machining centres.