Work without Barriers: The Growing Appeal of Cobots
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Work without Barriers: The Growing Appeal of Cobots

Jul 29, 2023

Since the 1960s, robotic technology has been pivotal in the development of modern manufacturing. Robots excel at performing repetitive tasks with consistent levels of speed, accuracy and dexterity. They weld truck bodies, pick items in otherwise deserted warehouses, solder circuit boards, handle hazardous materials and execute a thousand other tasks.

The economic and societal value of automation has never been greater. In a post-pandemic world, robots are helping fill a long-term skills gap in a depleted labor force, where it is estimated that over 10 million positions are currently unfilled in the global manufacturing sector.

A robot does not need weeks of on-the-job training to learn how to perform an intricate set of tasks. Once programmed and deployed, it can perform tirelessly, working 24/7 to shorten production cycles and maximize productivity. It can be moved around a factory floor or warehouse as needed, and it can instantly switch between programmed tasks.

Robots also perform dangerous tasks in environments that pose risks to humans. They can handle pathogens and toxic substances and can operate without the same spacing considerations as humans, allowing a boost in plant capacity and output.

Global demand for robotic solutions is growing steadily, reflecting the industry’s pressing needs to make operations smarter, more efficient and more sustainable. To date, however, the technology’s benefits have principally impacted heavy industries, such as vehicle manufacturing, with applications including assembly, inspection, packaging, palletizing and warehouse operations.

In contrast, the technology’s uptake has been slower in other sectors. Penetration levels also remain relatively low in small- to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that stand to reap the same benefits—or more—as larger organizations.

Perceptions that robots are costly, inflexible and difficult to program can deter smaller companies from investing in the technology. These outdated misconceptions are being swept away by a new wave of solutions that bring robots and human workers closer together than ever before.

Collaborative robots—often known as cobots—are specifically designed to work side-by-side with human colleagues. What’s more, their flexibility and affordability make these robotic solutions accessible across a wide range of industry sectors and use cases where the technology has not been fully deployed.

Smaller, lighter and inherently more portable than industrial robots, cobots are easy to install and move freely around a factory whenever and wherever they are needed. They’re designed with agility and ease of use firmly in mind, capable of being programmed and operated without requiring specialist robotic or software knowledge. With ABB’s YuMi and GoFa cobots, easy set-up is aided by intuitive programming software that allows the cobot to be taught its required positions and movements in minutes, using a palette of graphical drag-and-drop command blocks. By eliminating the need for specialist coding expertise, this software enables the cobots to be quickly programmed even by novice users.

Cobots are ideal to perform precise, repetitive tasks without tiring, which frees up workers to manage more skilled or rewarding tasks. This gives SMEs the ability to optimize the quality and consistency of their outputs while reducing labor costs, strengthening their competitiveness in a global marketplace.

Another principal area of concern to deploy robotic solutions has been safety. Like any other item of heavy machinery, a large industrial robot typically operates in an environment safeguarded by barriers, screens and other protective measures to protect human workers. SMEs may be concerned that even smaller-scale robotic solutions bring similar risks, and by the potential costs of mitigating them.

ABB’s cobots are equipped with an array of safety features that ensure they can be used in close proximity to humans—just like two or more workers sharing space on an assembly line or at a workbench. In the event of potential contact with a human worker, both YuMi’s and GoFa’s movements will stop within milliseconds until its human coworker deems the situation safe. SWIFTI, ABB’s industrial collaborative robot, has a proximity detection system that incorporates a laser scanner and ABB’s SafeMove software that will moderate the speed and movement of the robot, bringing it to a halt if it detects a worker within its immediate working envelope. Movement will only resume once the worker returns to a safe distance. YuMi and GoFa also feature softly rounded surfaces and the removal of any pinch-points that could trap clothing or body parts.

The agility, ease of use and cost effectiveness of today’s cobots give smaller manufacturers the opportunity to make their operations more competitive and resilient. By enabling people to do more with the assistance of robotic automation, cobots present new possibilities for augmenting worker performance.

And as advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning make cobots smarter and more adaptable, we’re only starting to unlock a vast range of applications where robotic automation can help humans focus on what they do best—being human.

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Mattia Marconi