Cobots Are Here to Stay: Applying and Justifying Their Use on the Assembly Line

May 13, 2024 by
BlueBay Automation Content Team

The Assembly Show South 2024 in Nashville, TN, and Automate 2024 highlighted a clear trend: the increasing presence of collaborative robots (cobots) in manufacturing. With so many cobots on display, it's evident that they are becoming an integral part of the industry. As we walked through the exhibits, it was impossible to ignore the excitement around these versatile robots. They are not just a futuristic concept anymore; they are here, and they are transforming manufacturing processes.

In this article, we will dive into how cobots can be effectively applied and justified on assembly lines. From addressing labor shortages to increasing efficiency, cobots offer a range of benefits. Join us as we explore the key considerations and best practices for integrating cobots into your operations, ensuring you stay competitive in an evolving landscape.

What is a cobot?

A collaborative robot, or cobot, is an industrial robot designed to work alongside humans in a shared workspace. Unlike traditional industrial robots that are typically isolated from human workers due to safety concerns, cobots are engineered to be inherently safe. They are built with rounded edges, force-limiting joints, and other design features that minimize the risk of injury.

Cobots comply with ISO 10218 part 1 and part 2 standards, which define the safety requirements for industrial robots and robot systems. These standards ensure that cobots can operate safely around people without the need for extensive safety guarding. While some cobots do come equipped with additional safety features like sensors, force feedback, and vision systems, their fundamental design is what allows them to work safely in close proximity to humans.

Cobots are characterized by their ease of use, flexibility, and ability to be quickly redeployed to different tasks. This makes them ideal for applications that require frequent changes or adjustments, such as those found in high-mix, low-volume production environments. Their user-friendly interfaces and intuitive programming capabilities, often including hand-guiding and teach pendants, enable even non-experts to set up and operate them efficiently.

Additionally, cobots' ability to work directly with human operators enhances productivity and allows for more efficient use of floor space. They can perform repetitive and strenuous tasks, freeing human workers to focus on more complex and value-added activities. This synergy between human and machine not only boosts overall efficiency but also improves workplace ergonomics and safety.

Understanding the Differences: Cobots vs. Traditional Robots

Cobots:

  • Inherently Safe: Designed with safety in mind, cobots incorporate force-limiting technology, ensuring they stop operating if they encounter an obstacle. This makes them suitable for collaborative environments without the need for extensive safety guarding.
  • Easy to Program: Cobots feature intuitive programming interfaces, allowing users to program them without extensive coding knowledge. Hand-guiding and teach pendants enable operators to manually guide the robot through tasks, simplifying setup.
  • Free Drive Teach Enabled: Many cobots offer a "free drive" mode, allowing operators to physically move the robot arm to teach it new positions and tasks, making adjustments easy.
  • High-Mix, Low-Volume Applications: Cobots excel in environments with frequently changing production requirements, as they can be easily reprogrammed and redeployed.
  • Faster Deployment: Simple setup and programming translate to shorter deployment times, helping manufacturers quickly adapt to changing needs.
  • Slower Speeds: Cobots typically operate at slower speeds, enhancing safety but limiting their suitability for high-speed applications.
  • Lower Precision and Repeatability: While precise, cobots generally do not match the high precision and repeatability of traditional robots, which may be a consideration for some applications.
  • Lower Upfront Costs: Cobots usually have lower initial costs, making them attractive for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and budget-constrained applications.

Traditional Robots:

  • Require Guarding: These robots often operate at high speeds and forces, requiring safety guarding to protect human workers, which can increase installation complexity and cost.
  • Programming Knowledge Needed: Traditional robots require more advanced programming skills, involving specific coding languages and extensive training.
  • Higher Deployment Costs: The need for safety guarding, specialized programming, and complex integration results in higher overall deployment costs.
  • Low-Mix, High-Volume Applications: Traditional robots are ideal for environments with consistent production processes and high volumes, such as automotive manufacturing.
  • Longer Design Cycles: Integrating traditional robots into production lines typically involves longer design and deployment cycles.
  • Extremely Fast: Capable of operating at very high speeds, traditional robots are perfect for tasks requiring rapid movement and processing.
  • High Precision and Repeatability: Traditional robots offer superior precision and repeatability, making them suitable for applications demanding exacting accuracy.
  • Higher Overall Cost: Advanced capabilities, safety requirements, and integration complexity mean that traditional robots often come with higher total costs.

Understanding these distinctions will help you determine which type of robot is best suited for your specific manufacturing needs.

Top Cobot Applications

Cobots are versatile tools that can be applied to a wide range of tasks across various industries. Here are some of the most common applications for cobots in manufacturing:

  • Welding: Cobots are increasingly used in welding applications due to their ability to handle light payloads and operate at slower speeds, making them suitable for delicate welding tasks and working in close proximity to human operators. They also address the significant challenge of a skilled welder shortage by performing tasks that do not require high levels of expertise, allowing skilled welders to focus on more complex jobs. Additionally, cobots can manage parts and fixtures, enabling unskilled labor to assist with the overall welding process.
  • Dispensing: In dispensing tasks, cobots handle the precise application of adhesives, sealants, and other materials. Their slower speeds and light payload capabilities make them ideal for these tasks, which require a high level of accuracy. Cobots can assist with parts handling, allowing unskilled labor to support the dispensing process by loading and unloading materials. This combination of precision and assistance makes cobots highly effective in dispensing applications.
  • Palletizing: Cobots are also significant in palletizing operations. They can handle payloads up to 66 pounds, making them suitable for stacking boxes and other items in warehouse and manufacturing environments. Cobots are well-suited for applications with lower throughput requirements, efficiently handling tasks that do not demand extremely high speeds. Palletizing tasks generally pose low risks to both the cobot and human operators, making cobots an ideal choice for these applications.
  • Machine Tending: In machine tending, cobots can handle parts and materials with payloads up to 66 pounds, making them suitable for loading and unloading CNC machines, lathes, and other equipment. They are ideal for applications with long machine cycle times, during which the cobot can perform other tasks or remain idle. Their flexibility and ease of redeployment make them well-suited for repetitive machine tending tasks that involve low risk.
  • Pick and Place / Assembly: Cobots excel in pick-and-place and assembly tasks, where they consistently perform actions such as picking up parts, placing them in specific locations, and assembling components. Cobots can be integrated with flexible feeding systems that use vibration technology to orient parts for robotic picking, enhancing the efficiency and versatility of these operations. Their ability to handle repetitive tasks with high consistency makes them invaluable in assembly lines.
  • Quality Inspection: Cobots provide significant benefits in quality inspection tasks. They are ideal for handling light payloads such as cameras and sensors. Cobots can be programmed to move cameras and sensors to different positions, enabling comprehensive inspections from multiple angles. They can be integrated with advanced vision systems and AI-based inspection systems, enhancing their ability to detect defects and ensure product quality. Additionally, cobots can perform inspections as part of a broader automation solution, combining inspection tasks with part handling or sorting to streamline the production process.

These applications showcase the versatility and potential of cobots in modern manufacturing, offering solutions that enhance productivity, address labor shortages, and improve overall efficiency.

Why Automate?

Automation with collaborative robots offer numerous benefits that make it an attractive option for manufacturers. Here are some of the key reasons to consider automation with a cobot:

  • Labor Shortage: The manufacturing industry is facing a significant labor shortage, particularly for skilled positions. Automation can help bridge this gap by performing tasks that are difficult to fill with human workers. Cobots, in particular, can work alongside human operators, enhancing productivity and allowing companies to make the most of their existing workforce.
  • Increasing Global Competition: As global competition intensifies, manufacturers must find ways to increase efficiency and reduce costs. Automation with cobots enables companies to improve their production processes, enhance product quality, and remain competitive in the global market.
  • Reshoring and Onshoring Opportunities: Automation makes it more feasible for companies to bring manufacturing operations back to their home countries. By reducing labor costs and increasing efficiency, automation can offset the higher costs associated with domestic production, making reshoring and onshoring viable options while still maintaining the resources available.
  • Rising Costs of Raw Materials and Labor: The cost of raw materials and labor continues to rise, putting pressure on manufacturers to find ways to reduce expenses. Automation and cobots help to control costs by increasing productivity and reducing waste, allowing companies to maintain profitability even as input costs rise - no matter if the organization is large or small.
  • Maintain and Increase Bottom Line: Automation enhances efficiency and productivity, which directly impacts the bottom line. By increasing output and improving product quality, companies can boost their profitability and ensure long-term success.

Is a Cobot Always the Right Tool?

While cobots offer numerous advantages, they are not always the best solution for every application. Here are some scenarios where cobots may not be the ideal choice:

  • High-Speed Applications: Cobots typically operate at slower speeds compared to traditional industrial robots. This inherent characteristic enhances their safety but may limit their suitability for tasks that require extremely high speeds. In applications where speed is critical, such as high-volume production lines, traditional robots may be more appropriate due to their ability to operate at much higher velocities.
  • Heavy Payloads: Cobots are generally designed to handle lighter payloads, typically up to 20-30 kgs. This makes them ideal for many tasks but less suitable for applications involving heavier loads. For tasks that require moving or manipulating heavy objects, traditional robots with higher payload capacities are necessary. These robots are specifically built to handle substantial weights and can do so more efficiently and safely than cobots.
  • High Precision Requirements: While cobots are precise, they do not match the high precision and repeatability of traditional industrial robots. For tasks that demand extremely high accuracy, such as certain machining processes or precision assembly operations, traditional robots may be the better option. Their advanced control systems and robust mechanical designs allow them to achieve and maintain the exacting tolerances required for these applications.
  • Non-Collaborative Applications: Cobots are designed for collaborative environments where they work alongside human operators. This design includes safety features that reduce the risk of injury when humans are nearby. However, for tasks that involve significant safety risks—such as handling sharp or hazardous materials—traditional robots with appropriate safety guarding may be more suitable. These robots can operate in environments isolated from human workers, allowing them to perform dangerous tasks without compromising safety.

By understanding the limitations of cobots, manufacturers can make informed decisions about when to use them and when to opt for traditional robots. This ensures that the right tool is chosen for each specific application, optimizing efficiency, safety, and productivity.

Ensuring Success with Cobot Implementation

Successfully implementing cobots requires careful planning and consideration. Here are some key steps to ensure a successful deployment:

  1. Start Simple: Begin with straightforward applications that are easy to automate. This approach allows your team to become familiar with the technology and build confidence in its capabilities. Starting with simple tasks also helps in identifying any initial challenges without the complexities of a more complicated application.
  2. Set Reasonable Expectations: Understand the capabilities and limitations of cobots. Set realistic goals and ensure that everyone involved has a clear understanding of what the cobot can and cannot do. This helps in avoiding disappointment and ensures that the implementation process stays on track.
  3. Consider the Application Beyond the Robot: The success of a cobot implementation depends on more than just the robot itself. Consider all aspects of the application, including tooling, fixtures, software, and integration with existing systems. Ensuring that these components work harmoniously with the cobot is crucial for a smooth operation.
  4. Conduct an Engineering Study: Conducting a feasibility study can help reduce risk and ensure that the application will work as expected. This study acts as a proof of concept, allowing you to identify and address potential issues before full-scale implementation. It helps in validating the application and refining the deployment plan.
  5. Utilize Pre-Engineered Solutions: Utilizing pre-engineered solutions can simplify the deployment process. These "out of the box" solutions are tried and tested and can be customized to fit the specific requirements of your application. Pre-engineered solutions minimize the risks associated with bespoke designs and speed up the deployment process.
  6. Seek Expert Help: Don’t try to implement cobots on your own. Enlist the help of experts who have experience with cobot deployments. Their knowledge and expertise can help ensure a smooth and successful implementation. Experts can provide valuable insights and troubleshoot issues that may arise during deployment.
  7. Perform Risk Assessments: Conduct thorough risk assessments to ensure the safety of both the cobot and human operators. This includes evaluating potential hazards and implementing appropriate safety measures. A comprehensive risk assessment helps in identifying and mitigating risks, ensuring a safe working environment.
  8. Involve Operators: Gain buy-in from the operators who will be working with the cobots. Involve them in the planning and implementation process to ensure that the cobots are used effectively and efficiently. Operator involvement helps in gaining practical insights and ensures that the cobots are integrated seamlessly into the existing workflow.

By following these steps, manufacturers can increase the likelihood of a successful cobot implementation, optimizing productivity and enhancing workplace safety.

Measuring Success in ROI

Measuring the return on investment (ROI) for cobot implementation involves considering both the costs and benefits. Here are some key factors to consider:

Investment Costs:

  • Purchase Price: The upfront cost of the cobot and any associated equipment.
  • Installation Cost: The expenses related to setting up and integrating the cobot into your production line.
  • Training Cost: The cost of training employees to use and maintain the cobot.
  • Maintenance Costs: Ongoing expenses for maintaining the cobot over its expected lifespan.

Net Benefits:

  • Labor Cost Savings: The reduction in labor costs due to automation. Cobots can perform tasks that would otherwise require human workers, reducing the need for additional staff.
  • Increased Production: The value of additional output due to higher productivity. Cobots can operate continuously without breaks, increasing overall production capacity.
  • Improved Quality: The reduction in costs from waste and defects. Cobots can perform tasks with high consistency and accuracy, reducing the likelihood of errors and defects.
  • Frequency of Absenteeism: Calculate the average number of days lost due to absenteeism and its impact on production. Automation can help mitigate the effects of absenteeism by ensuring continuous operation.
  • Cost of Downtime: Estimate the lost revenue per day due to unstaffed positions. This can include lost sales, delayed shipments, and lower production output. Cobots can help reduce downtime by maintaining consistent production levels.

Conclusion

Cobots are transforming the manufacturing landscape, offering a flexible, cost-effective, and safe alternative to traditional robots. By understanding their applications and limitations, and by carefully planning their implementation, manufacturers can leverage cobots to enhance productivity and remain competitive in the global market.

The Assembly Show South 2024 and Automate 2024 demonstrated the significant advancements and capabilities of cobots, and the future looks promising for their continued integration into manufacturing processes. Whether you are looking to address labor shortages, increase efficiency, or improve product quality, cobots offer a versatile and powerful solution. BlueBay Automation is committed to helping you navigate this transition with expert guidance and state-of-the-art solutions.

Contact BlueBay Automation today to learn more about how we can help you implement cobots in your facility and achieve your automation goals!


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BlueBay Automation Content Team May 13, 2024
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