The Rise of Collaborative Industrial Robots in Advanced Manufacturing

Collaborative Industrial Robots (Cobots) automation is set to be at the center stage of the human-robot interaction in the 2020s, and beyond.
Susan Fourtané
Collaborative Industrial Robots advance Industry 4.0 sdecoret/iStock

Mechanical creatures and concepts similar to robots can be found in history from about 400 BCE. The first real industrial robot was used in 1937; it was a crane-like device with five movement axes, a grab hand that could turn around its own axis and was powered by one electric motor.

The first patented robot was produced by the American company Unimation in 1956. Back then, robots were also called programmable transfer machines since their only task was to move objects from one point to another. 

In Europe, ABB Robotics, a Swiss-Swedish leading supplier of industrial robots and robot software, and Kuka Robotics, a German manufacturer of industrial robots and solutions for factory automation, introduced industrial robots on the market in 1973.

It was in 1996 when the idea of collaborative robots came into play by the hand of J. Edward Colgate and Michael Peshkin, who invented the first collaborative robot (cobot), and called it "a device and method for direct physical interaction between a person and a computer-controlled manipulator."

Robotics and industrial manufacturing

Fast forward into the present century, and we find that the usage and development of Collaborative Industrial Robots (Cobots) are accelerating faster than ever. Many believe human and machine collaboration plays a paramount role in the development of Industry 4.0 and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

Collaborative Industrial Robots are of great help in assisting humans in the manufacturing industry. Cobots are equipped with advanced sensors for fine-tuned work. They are quick to learn from the people who use them, becoming great coworkers and collaborators. Kuka Robotics, who also launched one of the first industrial robots on the market, launched its first Cobot in 2004, called the LBR3. 

LBR3 was followed by the UR5 in 2008, the first Cobot released by Universal Robots, one of the world's largest robot suppliers. In 2012, the UR10 was launched, followed by the UR3 in 2015, a Cobot designed specifically for a tabletop.

Increase of productivity in manufacturing: Cobots take over boring and monotonous jobs, human employees perform more complex tasks

industry 4.0
Automation increases productivity in manufacturing, Source: MicroStockHub/iStock 

Robotics can reduce labor costs and increase productivity in industrial manufacturing. Robotics can also prevent a recurrence of future plant shutdowns. In case of a pandemic or any other disturbance, robotics allow industries to continue production while human controllers can monitor safely from the distance, or even remotely.

Collaborative robots with Machine Vision can be used for detailed work. Cobots are already being implemented in global factories as part of the shift into the factory of tomorrow.

Factory automation, or industrial automation, is the connecting up of all factory equipment to improve the efficiency and reliability of process control systems. In turn, this leads to the achievement of lower costs, improved quality, increased flexibility, and overall reduced environmental impact.

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In the research paper Collaborative Robots: Frontiers of Current Literature, published in the Journal of Intelligent Systems: Theory and Applications, Project Researcher Mikkel Knudsen and Research Director Dr. Jari Kaivo-oja from Finland Futures Research Centre, University of Turku, Finland explain that collaborative robots "play an increasing role in the advanced manufacturing landscape."

According to the researchers, "the Cobot market is rapidly expanding, and the academic literature is similarly growing." The paper presents current robotics trends and future frontiers of the Cobots development. The paper illustrates potential developments of future human-robot interactions and makes the following comparison between traditional industrial robots and collaborative industrial robots.

Traditional industrial robots Vs. collaborative industrial robots (Cobots)

industrial robots
Industrial welding robots at an automated car manufacturing factory assembly line, Source: imagima/iStock

The characteristics of collaborative industrial robots suit the demands of Industry 4.0 and the global megatrends better than those of traditional industrial robots. In other words, Cobots are better equipped to join humans in Industry 4.0 --also called the Fourth Industrial Revolution-- than traditional industrial robots. The comparison is as follows:

Traditional Industrial Robots

  • Fixed installation, repeatable tasks, rarely changed

  • Interaction with worker only during programming 

  • Profitable only with medium to large lot size 

  • Small or big, and very fast

Collaborative Industrial Robots

  • Flexible relocation and frequent task changes 

  • Safe and frequent interaction with worker 

  • Profitable even at single lot production 

  • Small, slow, easy to move, easy to use

Cobots and human collaboration: Human+Machine collaboration in the advanced manufacturing landscape

  • Independent: A human operator and a Cobot work on separate workpieces, independently, and for their individual manufacturing processes. The collaborative element constitutes the shared workspace without cages and fences.   

  • Simultaneous: A human operator and a Cobot operate on separate manufacturing processes at the same workpiece and at the same time. Concurrently operating on the same workpiece minimizes transit time, improves productivity and space utilization, but as such, there is no time or task dependency between the humans and the Cobot. 

  • Sequential: A human operator and a Cobot perform sequential manufacturing processes on the same workpiece. Here, there are time dependencies between the processes of the operator and the Cobot; often the Cobot is assigned to handle the more tedious processes, which may also improve the operator's working condition.

  • Supportive: A human operator and a Cobot work on the same process on the same piece interactively. Here, there may be full dependencies between the human and the Cobot, as one cannot perform the task without the other.

According to the researchers, most examples of Cobots deployed in industrial smart manufacturing settings today belong to the independent and simultaneous collaboration scenarios. Yet, the most advanced research projects aim to break new ground toward the deployment of sequential and supportive collaboration scenarios between humans and collaborative robots. 

In order to reach this point, more sophisticated systems and solutions need to be put in place. According to the paper, as the degree of interdependency and collaboration increases, "Cobots need to have improved semantic understanding of the task goal and the actions and intents of their human co-workers. Similarly, the human workforce needs to be able to communicate with the Cobot in intuitive ways." 

Private 5G wireless technology and Cobots in advanced manufacturing

industrial robots
The changing role of the engineer: Using a digital tablet supervising industrial robotic arms doing their work in an automated home appliance factory, Source: vm/iStock

One of the most important developments directly linked to the improvement in collaborative robots in manufacturing is 5G technology. The need for a dedicated private and powerful 5G network able to cope with the demands of advanced manufacturing is something OEMs need to look into. 

The recent release of Nokia's industrial-grade 5G private wireless standalone has been developed to power Industry 4.0 needs and demands. With low-latency connectivity, a private wireless solution helps OEMs to increase robotic automation, ensure safety and security, and achieve new levels of quality, efficiency, and productivity in the manufacturing operations.

Cobots: Answers to megatrends

Cobots have started to make an impact on the largest market sector for industrial robots: The automotive industry. Forecasts for the annual revenues of collaborative robots suggest global revenues of $7.6 billion by 2027. Even more optimistic revenues of $9.2 billion by 2025 are reported in the paper.

Climate change, environmental pressures, shrinking workforces, and aging population as well as changing trade patterns on account of geopolitical shifts by 2030 are going to increase the already rapid technological development within the manufacturing industry. Within this context, Cobots are set to play a paramount role in shaping the response to these global trends.

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