May 22, 2022

The Queens County Citizen

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Collaborative robots and their Industry applications

What is a Cobot?

A collaborative robot (Cobot for short) is an industrial robot designed to work in conjunction with humans in close proximity and as such are built with human safety in mind; therefore foregoing the need for restrictive safety fencing and other extensive safety measures that larger traditional industrial robots require.

These robots typically come in the form of robotic arms equipped with an array of sensors that enable the cobot to perform programmed tasks as well as switch off in case an obstacle is detected. To perform their prescribed routines, many of these arms have six-axis motion capabilities which enable them to have great manoeuvrability around a workspace.

They are commonly able to handle loads between 3kg and 16kg and have a reach that ranges between 19.7 and 35.4 inches. As opposed to traditional industrial arms which can operate at speeds as fast as 3m/s, most cobot arms move at a maximum speed of 1.5 m/s. This is a safety measure that protects workers from injury through collision.

A prediction by Markets and Markets estimates the global market value for collaborative robots to reach $10.5 billion by the year 2027, up from $1.2 billion in 2021. That represents a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 43.4% over that time period.

This projected growth is driven mainly by a high return on investment (ROI), an important factor that will see small scale businesses adopt the technology.

Which Industries use Cobot arms?

The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) indicates that the largest adopter of industrial robots is the automotive industry which accounts for 28% of installations globally. This is closely followed by the electronics industry at 24%. Metal and machinery comes next at 12%, plastics and chemical products (5%) while food and beverages closes in at 3%.

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Automotive Industry

A trendsetter in the world of robotics manufacturing, the first-ever industrial robot was used in an automotive factory about 60 years ago but despite this, cobots are still relatively new within this industry.

Because this industry has so many types of processes (assembly, machine tending, part inspection and finishing) and sub-processes before a finished product can be seen; it is no surprise that automotive production leads the pack in terms of adoption.

Traditional industrial robots are commonplace in vehicle production but cobots are slowly taking up tasks that require a delicate, deft touch. An example of such an application is welding where a skilled worker can work with a cobot for a precise and replicable finish across product lines.

Laser, arc, ultrasonic, plasma, and spot welding are all jobs that a welding robot arm can complete with inhuman accuracy over and over again leading to a reduction in production downtime and material wastage.

Electronics Industry

A fast-moving industry, the Electronics segment is one of the largest adopters of cobot technology worldwide. This is due to strong competition that prompts manufacturers to seek out even marginal improvements to their production processes.

Cobots arms give manufacturers a definitive edge providing even small volume productions with fast ROI all while having the advantage of flexibility, manoeuvrability, high productivity, and high precision assembly under tight tolerances, usually within +/- 0.1mm.

An example of a company utilizing cobots is New Zealand based Betacom which uses them to aid in the production of LED road lights by picking and placing circuit boards onto an aluminium presser followed by accurately placing six LED lenses onto the board.

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The machine then interchanges its end of arm tooling (EAOT) with a pneumatic screwdriver which it then uses to screw in the lenses and circuit board into the aluminium presser. The company hails the robot as a game-changer because it “quite simply does not make mistakes”.

Rubber and plastics Industry

Robot arms within this segment are deployed in a variety of reach, payload and machine tending assignments. They also automate processes that include grinding and polishing, packaging and palletizing as well as labelling.

As more plastics manufacturers move into additive processes such as 3D printing, cobots will keep the printers running by performing raw material replacement and harvesting tasks; otherwise known as machine tending.

EVCO Plastics, a custom injection mold company in Wisconsin with a High mix/Low volume production process, uses cobots in assembly, harvesting of 3D printers, and packaging. A key perk they’ve noted is easy programmability; whereas it would previously take several weeks to automate a new project, it now takes 2 days.

The easy setup reduces downtime while the automation of these tasks means workers can tend to higher-value tasks instead of tedious repetitive tasks such as tending to a 3D printer. For EVCO, this has led to improved productivity, efficiency, consistent quality and a healthier bottom line.

Food and Beverage Industry

In order to meet the challenge of offering high quality, sustainable food at lower prices, automation has risen as a solution and essential component of food production.

The vegetarian and gourmet food manufacturer, Atria, uses collaborative robots in a packaging, palletizing, and labelling capacity. As a result, the company has experienced a 25% reduction in carbon waste due to packing inefficiencies.

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Another benefit emanates from the easy programming and fast setup of cobots; where it previously took 6 hours to convert from packaging shrimp to packaging olives, it now takes just 20 minutes.

These advancements gain the company reliable, efficient product lines while lowering staffing costs – a huge boon to a company’s bottom line. Payback period on these robots takes just one year.

Conclusion

Collaborative robotics technology is a hallmark advancement in manufacturing as it can provide the benefits of automation to all businesses regardless of their size. They reduce the barrier to entry by offering a fast return on investment – months as opposed to years; as well as significant improvements in safety, efficiency and production volume.

Increased competition amongst cobot manufacturers themselves will also drive down the costs of acquiring robotic arms thus improving the adoption of cobot technologies.

The market leader, Universal robots, saw its market share gradually decrease from 55% in 2016 to 46% in 2017. It is estimated that it saw a further dip in 2018 despite its revenues rising by more than 40%.

Rising revenues despite increased competition indicate that there is still room for expansion within the industry. It bears a positive outlook for the field of collaborative robots.