By Paul Mason – Technology Advisor
A cobot or collaborative robot is a robot intended to work alongside humans in a shared workspace, and they can deliver real process improvements without the hefty price tag or complex operating requirements that SMEs might expect.
Although cobots may not yet be able to match industrial robots in high speed, heavy payload and long reach applications, there is a growing list of use cases where cobots may be a better investment due to their rapid implementation times, ease of use, and affordable cost.
Cobots are typically used where the payload is less than 10kg, the physical reach is less than 1.3m and where robot movement speed is not critical. Applications such as welding or painting are ideal for cobots, as well as other short-range pick and place, filling and sorting applications. Cobots can also be integrated with other systems and assemblies to increase their reach and functionality to execute applications such as cartonising or palletising.
SMEs and their customers are demanding faster lead times, lower volumes, higher levels of customization, and lower costs. Cobots can typically manage all these demands as they can be setup quickly, their operation can be modified easily without weeks of programming and validation, and they can be easily redeployed to other work areas and applications. All these factors can mean faster turnarounds and higher flexibility with lower costs.
Perhaps the biggest game changer for SMEs is that cobots have become increasingly user friendly. Users can typically setup a cobot within a matter of hours with no software programming experience, with more advanced functionality possible with just a few days of operator training. The inherent ability for cobots to share the workspace with humans allows the operator, for example, to simply move the cobot along the desired path or set the waypoints and required function, such as pickup, move and release. Cobots can easily deliver minor product updates or product changeovers that are made on the run by in-house operators.
Although the cost of cobots is not dissimilar to similar-sized industrial robots, they can be more affordable as additional infrastructure such as robot cages and other protective measures are not required. Due diligence and safety assessments are still required to ensure a cobot is safe to operate around humans, however the overall capital and operating expenses can be reduced when using cobots.
Scalability is another consideration. The long lead times of industrial robots can be prohibitive, both in the robot manufacture and delivery times, as well as the extensive programming, testing, commissioning, and onsite validation that is required. As cobots are produced in an off-the-shelf configuration, lead times are typically days to weeks, and setup out of the box can be within hours when using off-the-shelf effectors and grippers.
In a nutshell, cobots can provide an accessible and low risk automation solution for SMEs across a range of industries:
- Cobots are easy to use and configure using in-house operators, often just by moving the cobot itself or using a tablet
- Modern cobots have short lead times and can be purchased off-the-shelf, they are ‘plug and play’ and can be setup onsite within hours
- Cobots can automate a range of dirty, dangerous or repetitive tasks and can be redeployed for use in different applications or workstations
- Cobots don’t require expensive infrastructure and can work safely alongside humans
- Cobot implementation costs are generally lower than industrial robots due to the reduced infrastructure requirements, from as low as $50K for a basic cobot
A look at Australia’s robot and cobot landscape today shows that the range of robots and cobots supported locally is increasing – there are now around 20 automation providers in Melbourne alone, many of these offering both industrial robots and cobot solutions.
If your business handles products or components that weigh less than 10kg, or have dirty, dangerous or repetitive applications which could be automated, you can likely find a cobot to help.
Picture 1 and 3: ADDE. Picture 2: Mobile Automation
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