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A Collaborative Approach

15/06/2017 – Innovation / Science & Technology / Robots / Cobots

A record 240,000 industrial robots were sold worldwide last year. The nascent collaborative robots – or ‘Cobots’ – segment accounts for just five per cent of that global market today. Nonetheless, experts expound the strong potential for cobots to revolutionise production – in particular for SMEs, which account for 70 per cent of global manufacturing. Fran Roberts reports.


Given the high cost associated with robotics, it is little wonder that many companies have so far struggled to automate. Cobots are the latest iteration of these, and carry a hefty average price tag of US$24,000 per unit, according to Barclays Equity Research analysts. However, with a reported one-year payback, cobot automation is said to be 70 per cent more cost-effective than a standard articulated arm robot automation device. In addition, Germany’s Franka Emika and its eponymous cobot is currently available to pre-order at a yet-to-be-confirmed price of €9,900 (about US$10,500), making it much cheaper than its competitors. Better yet, the Franka Emika can build copies of itself.


Cobots may have been around for over a decade but the concept has only really started gaining traction in recent years. Initially driving this movement was the European Union’s SME Robot programme, started in 2005 with a goal of increasing worker productivity so that labour-intensive tasks wouldn’t be off-shored. Today, somewhat remarkably, the EU is considering a proposal that would grant robots legal status as ‘electronic persons’. Asia, too, has seen a drive towards automation, with China anticipated to be one of the key regions contributing to growth in the cobots sector. Through its ‘Made in China 2025’ industrial policy, the continent’s superpower hopes to have 150 robots per 10,000 workers by 2025. That's triple what rate the country has now.


Within this context, many are predicting that cobots are the future. Market research firm, TechNavio, forecasts the global collaborative robots market will expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 50.88 per cent up to 2019.


Flexible friends


Bosch, the German engineering and electronics giant, is one of the key players in the cobots market and the Bosch APAS system was the first to be certified as an assistance system, meaning that it is safe to work alongside human workers. 


All cobots are equipped with force sensing, which means that in any situation they can feel an abnormal force and stop their motion immediately. Although not fully able to avoid a collision, they can reduce its impact and avoid certain types of incidents, like crushing accidents. This makes them safer for human-scaled operations, since they can work alongside humans and, in the case of an accident, will not severely injure anyone. This is certainly an advantage over traditional robots, which are often caged to avoid accidents. The result is increased efficiency within the manufacturing process, as parts don’t need to be brought to the robots – the robots are already there, working on the production line. 

In February 2016, robotics experts published ISO/TS 15066, a set of safety standards for collaborative industrial robot systems in the workplace. The guidelines establish everything from minimum safety distances between man and machine, to suggested maximum allowed speeds of operation.


Cobots should be safe to work alongside humans, not least because their task is invariably to help keep the workplace safe by replacing human operators in dirty, dangerous, and dull jobs and thus reduce repetitive strain and accidental injuries. Minimising the risk to staff is of high importance to companies, not least when you consider that the average cost of a work-related injury in the US is roughly US$38,000, which includes wages, productivity loss and medical expenses, according to the country’s National Safety Council.


In addition to safety, manufacturers are now looking to include other key features in their cobots. CTO and Co-founder of Universal Robots, Esben Østergaard, is raising the bar on using the term cobot, expanding it to include user-friendliness, re-deployability, simple set-up and affordability: “While safety is imperative, that’s simply the cost of entry into the cobot market now. We believe that being collaborative is just as much about being accessible, and lowering the automation barrier by placing robots within reach of manufacturers that never thought they would be able to deploy robots.” His company has a variety of collaborative robotic arms that are developed to contain six axis articulation points and have the ability to mimic the functions and actions of a human arm.


Revolutionary machines


Of course, many firms may find the costs of a cobot inhibitive but the market is already innovating to meet that challenge. Tennessee-based Hirebotics allows start-ups to rent cobots by the hour without any upfront capital expenditures. Hirebotics handles all programming, deployment and maintenance of the machine – usually the Universal Robots UR3, UR5 and UR10 models – while the company hiring the cobot pays for only the hours it is operable. One company to embrace the Hirebotics approach is Creating Revolutions, which manufactures customer service paging devices. Previously, faulty assembly was causing double-digit failure rates. “The problem is you can't efficiently repeat a specific process the exact same over and over again as a human being,” says Einar Rosenberg, CIO of Creating Revolutions. With the cobot onboard, product rejection rates have fallen to nearly zero and by cost-effectively increasing production rates, Creating Revolutions has managed to reduce its overheads by double digits.


Robots ordered by automotive component suppliers were up 53 per cent in the first quarter of 2017, according to the Robotic Industries Association (RIA), while orders by automotive OEMs increased 32 per cent. Another good sign for the future of robotics was the continued growth in non-automotive industries like metals (54 per cent), semiconductors and electronics (22 per cent), and food and consumer goods (15 per cent).


Maintaining momentum


In the food industry, Momentum Machines has created a machine that creates and cooks burgers. Ingredients are stored in automated containers along an assembly line. Instead of pre-prepared vegetables, cheese, and ground beef, the robot chars, slices, dices, and assembles it all fresh – all within 10 seconds. This certainly puts the ‘fast’ into fast food but could also lead to higher quality burgers being served. Burger robots may improve consistency and sanitation but they also don’t come with the same wage, overtime and healthcare expenses as human chefs – Momentum Machines advises that the average fast food joint spends US$135,000 a year on burger line cooks – allowing businesses to potentially invest in higher quality ingredients. 


While the burger-bot has yet to take anyone’s job, that may well change in the near future. In a recent Pew Survey, some 1,900 technology experts agreed that robots would be a pervasive part of daily life by 2025. “Our device isn’t meant to make employees more efficient,” Momentum Machines Co-founder Alexandros Vardakostas explains. “It’s meant to completely obviate them.” Following the burger theme, Miso Robotics debuted Flippy recently at a CaliBurger restaurant in Pasadena, flipping burgers and placing patties on buns alongside human staff, and plans to release Flippy across more than 50 CaliBurger restaurants worldwide by 2019.


Over in the UK, London-based Starship Technologies made the world's first bot-driven food delivery last year, and according to the company, its robots have journeyed over 5,000 miles in tests across Greenwich, Milton Keynes and Glastonbury, meeting over 400,000 people without a hitch.


Innovations in industry


At the Advance Design & Manufacturing Expo (ADM) in Toronto last month, KUKA Robotics – one of the global Big Four producers of industrial robots – was demonstrating one of its machines preparing coffee. Down in Australia, AUSPACK 2017 came to Sydney and saw the UR10 model by Universal Robotics performing palletisation, de-palletisation and label application duties, controlled by Foodmach’s innovative and flexible Robowizard pallet layer programming software.


Burgers are not the only fast food to get the cobot treatment. Zume Pizza in California employs several. “We’re in a cobot situation,” says Julia Collins, the company’s Co-founder and Co-CEO. “There are humans and robots collaborating to make better food, to make more fulfilling jobs and to make a more stable working environment.” Zume is located in Mountain View, California, where the current minimum wage is US$10.50 an hour and will be rising to US$15 by 2018. Assuming two employees work 20-hour weeks at minimum wage, Zume could replace them with a robot and pay off the initial costs in just over a year. Once the minimum wage increases, though, it would take only around 10 months to recoup the costs of replacing a worker with a robot.


Ingenuity and opportunity


The worry about humans losing their jobs to robots is very real. Two years ago, the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) predicted that five million Australian jobs would be lost to automation by 2030. Their report found that 40 per cent of Australian jobs, and 60 per cent of jobs in rural and regional areas were at risk of being replaced by cheaper, more efficient robots. However, many focus on the collaborative aspect of the new breed of robots and how they can enhance the activities of their human counterparts. “In China, when we try to implement Industry 4.0, humans cannot be fully replaced,” notes Yang Luo, Vice President of Siasun, China’s largest robot maker. “We can replace some human labour work but robotics requires some assistance from humans.”


Danish Technological Institute (DTI) also believes that humans will continue to play a pivotal role in the workplace despite the emergence of cobots. According to the DTI’s Robot Technology Manager, Søren Peter Johansen, automating the simplest 80 per cent of a production process will typically be much cheaper than a fully automated solution. The remaining 20 per cent – the technologically difficult sub-processes – can be performed by a human operator. The robot performs the heavy lifting or monotonous repetitions, for example, while the human operator performs the higher-value work, which is more variable and requires greater ingenuity. 


It follows that just as the Industrial Revolution did not make mankind completely redundant, neither will cobots. “In our 20 years of robot installations, no one has been laid off by a robot. In fact, we’re seeing more and more acceptance by operators,” advises Mark Noschang, Chief Robotics Engineer, Omron Automation and Safety. In addition, a study carried out by Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers at BMW found that teams of humans and robots are 85 per cent more productive compared to when they work separately.


Increasing orders


Looking ahead, food and consumer goods are highly promising segments for robotics. According to a report from the RIA, the food and consumer goods industry increased orders for robots by 32 per cent in 2016. Among other functions, the robots in these industries are used to improve food safety, performing repetitive primary packaging tasks such as bin picking, tray loading and bottle handling, and assisting with secondary packaging tasks such as case packing, bundling, bagging and palletising. 


Cambridge Consultants unveiled its apple-picking robot in October 2015, while GNE Farm Equipment has developed an application that uses Universal Robots’ machines to reduce the labour costs of milking cows. The latter cobot automates the labour-intensive process of manually disinfecting cows’ udders before and after being milked.


In the years ahead, advances in actuation systems, energy and power systems, fabrication and materials technology, micro and nanotechnology, human-robot interfaces, communications and networking, planning and control, robustness and reliability, machine learning, and perception technologies will impact the development of cobots. Soft robotics and artificial intelligence will be other focal areas where the sector expects to see gains. And while undoubtedly still a very niche segment of the market, as their abilities grow and the cost per unit continues to shrink, cobots will become an increasingly compelling option for many SMEs to boost efficiency, speed and accuracy in their operations.

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