Collaborative robots: a helping hand

Posted on 20 May 2016 by Jonny Williamson

Several MACH 2016 exhibitors offered visitors the chance to shake hands with a ‘cobot’ – advanced collaborative robots which work alongside human counterparts.

By 2018, global sales of industrial robots will grow year-on-year by an average 15%, with the number of units sold doubling to around 400,000 units, according to 2015 World Robot Statistics, issued by the International Federation of Robotics.

Festo Flexible Robot
Robots are no longer solely found in automotive factories performing repetitive tasks for those with deep pockets (image courtesy of Festo).

Those are impressive figures, but if they are to become a reality, directors and senior managers have to move their thinking beyond entrenched perceptions of what industrial automation is.

Robots, for example, are no longer solely found in automotive factories, arranged along an interminable production line, performing repetitive tasks for those with deep pockets.

A new generation of affordable, flexible, collaborative robots have broken out of their safety cages and can now be found everywhere from global giants down to start-ups and SMEs, engaged in a diverse spread of applications across a variety of industries.

Uplifting times

“We are seeing significant demand for collaborative robots,” Tom Bouchier, managing director of FANUC UK, explained. “There is certainly a sense of momentum building, and when the trend takes off, it will really fly.”

The protective functions of CR-35iA enable it to work alongside humans without the need for safety cages (image courtesy of FANUC)

Interestingly, the enquiries FANUC is receiving for its cobots aren’t from companies with a particular application in mind; but from those with an open mind and excited by the capabilities on offer.

MACH 2016 saw FANUC’s heavy-lifting collaborative robot, the CR-35iA, make its UK debut. Capable of lifting up to 35kg, the protective functions of CR-35iA enable it to work alongside humans without the need for safety cages, fences or zones.

Alongside the heavyweight CR-35iA, the company also showcased its smaller CR- 7iA model. Lifting payloads up to 7kg, the smaller unit is designed to provide manufacturers with access to collaborative automation while working with lighter materials or in unfavourable ergonomic conditions.

According to Bouchier, the CR-35iA and CR-7iA are just the first wave of collaborative robots to be rolled out by FANUC across the globe – a clear demonstration that the company expects the trend to continue to grow.

To Yu, to Mi


Sawyer operates on a software platform that allows it to be trained by demonstration, using context instead of coordinates (image courtesy of Rethink Robotics).
Sawyer can be trained by demonstration, using context instead of coordinates (image courtesy of Rethink Robotics).

Also being demonstrated was ABB’s lightweight YuMi, the world’s first collaborative dual-arm industrial robot.

“While YuMi was specifically designed to meet the flexible and agile production needs of the consumer electronics industry, it has equal applications in any small parts assembly environment,” noted Paul Williams, ABB UK’s robotic systems sales manager.

“With its dual arms and flexible hands; universal parts feeding system; camera-based part location; lead-through programming, and advanced motion control, YuMi can be utilised in sectors and by companies which possibly haven’t previously considered automation,” he continued.

Both FANUC’s and ABB’s cobot offerings champion the ease with which they can be programmed, a similar tact taken by Rethink Robotics’ dextrous Sawyer – a smart collaborative robot distributed in the UK by Cobotix.

Leading by example

Automation AABTLN Plug & LinkUK product manager at Cobotix, Steve Warnes summed up the changes cobots are helping to drive throughout the industrial environment; “Historically, industrials robots have had to be programmed only by highly skilled engineers, and viable for just a handful of precise and high volume applications.

“Sawyer operates on the Intera software platform, a user-friendly graphical interface that anyone can master. The platform allows Sawyer to be trained by demonstration, using context instead of coordinates to enable non-technical personal to create and modify operations when and where needed.”

Intera doesn’t require the use of a teach pendant or keyboard to programme Sawyer; instead, an operator simply uses a few buttons on the robot’s arms and wrists, and moves the arms through the motions to train it to perform a task.

The robot has embedded intelligent behaviours, so as you manoeuvre the arms and move a part, for example, through space, it knows and understands what you’re doing. It’s then as easy as hitting run, and Sawyer goes to work.

“Our smart, collaborative robots adapt to real-world variability, are agile enough to change applications quickly, and perform tasks like people do. They are the perfect fit for many of the 90% of manufacturing tasks that can’t be practically automated today,” Warnes concluded.