Three main misconceptions about cobots and robots

Automating manufacturing processes is a complex issue. Toward the lower end of the machines’ spectrum is a class of robots called “cobots” designed to work closer with people. A study explains the main three misconceptions about cobots and robots.

Hannover Messe -Digitisation - Collaborative robots or ‘cobots’ are about to fundamentally transform the way humans work in factories - image courtesy of Deutsche-Messe.presse@messe.de
Collaborative robots or ‘cobots’ are about to fundamentally transform the way humans work in factories – image courtesy of Deutsche-Messe.presse@messe.de

Robots range from insect-like micro-robots to industrial robots powerful enough to move automotive chassis or airplanes.

“Collaborative robots” (or cobots) are robots which are designed to share a workspace with human workers.

As reported by Toshiba Machine, Industrial Robots, for many small and mid-sized companies, these cobots have helped bring the entry point for automation within range.

They allow them to gain competitive advantages of automation that had previously only been achievable for larger manufacturers.

While cobots can’t offer all the benefits of full industrial automation, they can be an effective first step.

Manufacturers need to explore all their robotic options, however, and understand the pros and cons of different types of automation to make the best long-term decision.

As with any major business decision, even equipment that appears to be low-risk and low-cost can become expensive when it doesn’t perform as expected.

Cobots have captured excitement based on their promised advantages, but those can also be based on the common three misconceptions that are important to understand.

The misunderstandings are:

1. Cobots are the only collaborative robots

While vendors are eager to claim the term “collaborative robots,” the robots themselves aren’t collaborative.

It’s the application that defines the ability for human and machine to collaborate. Almost any robot is capable of collaborative operation with the appropriate safety mechanisms in place.

In February 2016, the technical standard ISO/TS 15066 was published to provide safety guidelines for the use of robots in collaborative applications.

The standard explains collaborative techniques and provides force guidelines, maximum allowable robot power and speed, and design criteria for robot and robot tool manufacturers.

2. Cobots can always work without safety caging

Every automated application where humans are present requires a risk assessment, and collaborative applications require a range of safety mechanisms to keep human workers safe.

Cobot customers are often unhappily surprised to find that their application requires a safety cage, which can make the cobot cost similar to an industrial robot without the additional capabilities. Some applications require force limiters or reduced robot speed, which limits the robot’s capabilities and output.

Still others use sensors, cameras or light curtains to sense when a human enters the robot’s workspace, with safety software that stops or slows the robot until the human moves safely out of range and restarts the robot.

All of these requirements add cost and reduce output on what was initially intended to be a low-cost, low-risk cobot investment. If an accurate safety assessment is made up front, buyers can more effectively choose the robotic capabilities that are most important for their application—and often save time and money while better meeting their automation requirements.

3. Cobots operate faster and are more productive than human workers

Because cobots are intended to work safely alongside humans, they are designed to manage processes at the same or slower speeds than human workers, with about the same throughput.

Beyond safety, another reason for slower operation is the programming approach that most cobots use, in which an operator moves the robot arm in human-like motions and enters way points for each stop or action. The programming is simple, but it incorporates inefficient motion into the program.

In contrast, industrial robots calculate all movement internally for, offering higher speeds and smoother, more efficient motion. Where cobots may increase output over manual processes is by running for longer shifts.

However, because they’re designed to be collaborative, they typically don’t eliminate the need for human workers in those additional shifts, unlike industrial robots which can run full processes in lights-out operation without human workers.