Introduction to Cobots
Many companies utilizing a manufacturing assembly line have looked at growing their business by optimizing employee production through automation. However, integrating Smart Manufacturing equipment and procedures often requires managers and employees to learn and relearn new manufacturing systems. This approach of integration + learning to achieve optimal results is no longer an exception or a best practice; it’s just standard practice. The use of cobots in manufacturing is one more instance where integration + learning is crucial for the success of this useful, albeit complex, application.
What Is a Cobot?
First off, “cobot” is an abbreviation for collaborative robot. Previously, in many manufacturing paradigms, there were distinct lines drawn in the physical workplace between human and robotic areas. As more robots are designed to work alongside humans, the “collaborative” modifier has become an essential feature rather than an aspiration.
The Difference Between Robot and Cobot
In companies that use assembly line automation, industrial robots often have a few reliable traits. They are typically big, have a limited range of motion, and are intended to repeat a specialized task at high volume with exceedingly high speed and accuracy. Due to the rate and range of how they function, it can be dangerous for humans to be near them. Safety caging around the robotic areas is frequently necessary, which adds to the costs of implementing them.
Cobots, on the other hand, are ideal for processes lying somewhere between fully manual and fully automated. Precision and speed can still be obtained with cobots, but they also have the ability for flexibility and customization. These machines are ideal for manufacturers who make custom products with many components, but at a low volume. Alternatively, if companies have a significant number of automated processes as well as skilled human laborers, then cobots can be a way to help increase production accuracy and volume without compromising on safety.
Automation is how many manufacturing companies improve their workflow as the world transitions into Industry 4.0. That middle ground where cobots work is making automated systems more accessible to more companies. Automated solutions previously offered by industrial robot integrators were prohibitively expensive and/or required a substantial investment of space to accommodate the large machines.
Today, cobots can seamlessly interact with humans in workspaces with a very modest footprint. This enables machines to handle low added value tasks and then safely pass the product over to human workers for more advanced tasks.
Uses for Cobots in Manufacturing
The use cases for cobots are highly diverse. Some common examples include:
- Placing products on a conveyor belt
- Filing crates or boxes
- Adding products to an assembly line
- Sorting products
- Palletizing packaged goods
- Bin picking
- Machine loading
5 Things to Consider When Implementing Cobots
Although cobots are becoming widely implemented, there are several factors to consider before proceeding with your own cobot integration. An article recently published in the Journal of Physics advises that instead of looking at a comprehensive automation overhaul, the recommendation is to look at places where a cobot can assist current employees and help them do their jobs better.
Along with that guidance, here are five other things that can be helpful to consider when adding cobots to your manufacturing process.
1. Gauge Employee Acceptance of Cobots
Cobots work best when they help human workers, but companies must also gauge how current employees will tolerate a cobot coworker. Changes are often necessary to remain competitive. However, companies must still use discretion when and how they implement those changes. Research on human/cobot relationships is still new, so a universally accepted practice for successfully integrating cobots has not been established.
Each company needs to have a good understanding of their people, and a good understanding of the technology they hope to incorporate. If management were to apply technology that does not mesh well with their human workers, the friction caused by the new technology could create more problems than it solves.
2. Monitoring the Mental Well-Being of Those Working with Cobots
As the collaboration between humans and technology increases, there will necessarily be an increase in the physical interactions between these two entities. This is also causing a psychological transition as human workers move from working alongside other humans to working alongside robots.
Additionally, in previous iterations of automation, employees often worked the robots. With this new paradigm, employees are now working with the robots. All the risks and challenges that workers may face with this new kind of interaction are also not fully known. While this shouldn’t deter efforts to improve and advance, it is something to be aware of moving forward.
3. Updating Physical Safety Standards
In the past, avoiding harmful interaction between humans and robots involved physical barriers between operators and machines. With this new iteration of collaborative systems, robots and humans must work together in the same space. This necessitates the development of new safety procedures and protocols.
Cobot manufacturers are outfitting their machines with safety features such as force sensors and speed limitations. Nevertheless, cobots are still machines that can cause serious harm or injury to humans when equipped with tools, or combined with other machinery. Companies looking to implement them should plan accordingly.
4. Anticipating the Effects of Changing a Process
People often get comfortable with a way of doing things, which makes them resistant to change. However, in addition to the potential discomfort of changing a workflow, introducing cobots can also add other unwanted changes in the work environment.
One study on human/cobot collaboration showed that changes can positively affect the number of finished products in a collaborative assembly operation, but some “workers indicated higher levels of impatience due to feeling disturbed by the higher frequency of the electric motor and the noise generated by the robot.”
Again, this one instance should not halt a company’s efforts to integrate cobots in manufacturing, but it is something to keep in mind. This is especially true if the human workers and the cobots will have lots of contact.
5. Maximizing Flexibility in Your Manufacturing Process
Many of the previous points focused on the necessity of considering the employee(s) who will be interacting with the integrated cobots. After thinking through all those conditions, this final point is a reminder to keep the purpose of the whole system in view.
Flexibility is one of a cobot’s great strengths (both in the immediate sense of helping human workers with manufacturing tasks, and in the future sense of helping businesses quickly adapt to unforeseen changes in the market). Cobots are intended to respond to various demands. So as you plan to implement new machinery and methods, think ahead a few steps to see if your new additions could potentially help or obstruct other future improvements.
How +Vantage Can Help with Automation Integration
We welcome the opportunity to plan, design, and build a custom system to meet whatever manufacturing challenges you are facing. We can help implement turnkey automation systems and other improvements to your manufacturing line to help with overall operational efficiency. If you are ready to introduce more robust automation technologies into your manufacturing line, we are an automation company you can trust.
From battery assembly to aerospace/automotive assembly automation, we tailor our approach to meet your needs. No matter the size of your business, our experts will work with you to find the most effective system to streamline your process and increase your productivity.
Learn more about the +Vantage approach and how we can help.
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