New generation of collaborative robots

Overview

As the industry enters the era of smart manufacturing, several emerging technologies will be integral to this cognitive manufacturing environment. One such technology is the next generation of industrial robots. One of the most significant aspects of this ever-evolving technology is the rise of the new “cobot” workforce, where humans and machines will work collaboratively and safely side by side.

But the bigger picture is how the use of robotics has gradually moved beyond factory walls and production lines. And even in the manufacturing space, the use of robotics has moved beyond caged production robots that needed to be isolated to protect the human workforce. Robotics are used in many applications such as warehousing, biotechnology and pharmaceuticals, training of medical personnel, law enforcement, working in hazardous and contaminated areas, customer service in hotels and retail, and surveillance to name a few examples. Robots can now perform complex surgeries remotely guided by a human surgeon. Bots can help customers shop, choose items, and deliver them.

Today, Amazon has deployed more than 200,000 robots in its warehouses. The retail giant has built many of its warehouses specifically for mobile robots capable of autonomously transporting entire shelves and intelligently moving them around the warehouse completing fulfillment and delivery. Amazon felt the robots it used in its warehouses were so critical to its success that it purchased the robot company (Kiva). A sizable list of robot vendors now offer a range of collaborative and multi-functional robots capable of performing more human-like tasks for the benefit of industry, business and society.

The workforce of the future: humans and machines working together

One of the most promising technological trends in robotics in recent years has been the emergence of collaborative robots or cobots. The future already seems to be here for cobots, with a global deployment growth rate exceeding 25% per year. This growth is not only linked to the use of collaborative robots, but to a convergence between conventional industrial robots and cobots, which are increasingly adopting many of the functionalities and advantages of cobots due to advances in sensors, computer vision, motion control, and most importantly, AI. In the future, cobots will not only work in factories and warehouses, but in offices, shopping malls and construction sites. They won’t be big, bulky machines, but rather smaller, more agile, and much smarter human assistants.

To fully understand the impact that cobots can have, it is necessary to understand exactly what they are. It’s basically a specialized group of robots designed with a particular set of technologies that allow them to interact with human workers in a shared workplace. Using advanced sensor and machine vision technology as well as AI, these machines were created to address the safety challenges posed by conventional industrial robots. A protective stop is activated when a cobot comes into contact with or is in some proximity to a human worker, ensuring that the cobot’s movement is stopped and does not harm the person.

One of the basic concepts of a cobot is that humans and robots are interdependent and safely focus on what each of them does best. This makes cobots a good solution for acting as assistants to workers and tradespeople, performing tasks in a cooperative manner that would be too difficult for the worker or robot. The fundamental difference between cobots and conventional robots is not so much in the technology used, but rather in the application and the type of tasks they perform. Cobots are not intended to replace their human counterparts, but to work directly with them to improve productivity and enhance the safety of the human worker.

Benefits of collaborative robots in the workplace

Collaborative robots offer many advantages over traditional industrial robots as safe and flexible machines that can work with humans. They can support the workforce in the warehouse, production line or construction site, relieving them of many heavy, awkward and tedious tasks. Additionally, they can add automation to parts of a production line with minimal changes to existing automation equipment. The flexibility and affordability of smaller, more portable collaborative robots offer small manufacturers the opportunity to automate their processes. For large companies such as car manufacturers that already have automated production lines, the addition of collaborative robots provides support for workers in areas such as final assembly that have traditionally been difficult to automate and are more likely to cause injury to workers.

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Keywords: collaborative robots, cobots, human workforce, intelligent machines, cobot workforce, ARC advisory group.

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