As automation continues to evolve, ever-changing robotic capabilities blur the lines between collaborative and industrial robots.
For manufacturers, the COVID-19 pandemic has raised the issue of whether to integrate automation and robotics into their operations. For those that have, it’s an exciting time.
Since debuting over a decade ago, cobots have made automation affordable and accessible for organisations of all sizes. Compact in size, easy to program and able to be handled by people with limited technical expertise, cobots work safely alongside humans or on their own.
When to use a Cobot vs an Industrial Robot
There are various factors that should be considered before selecting either a cobot or industrial robot for your factory, says Universal Robots head of Southeast Asia Oceania Darrell Adams.
“This depends entirely on each organisation’s unique requirements and situation,” he says.
The following factors should influence any purchasing decisions surrounding robots:
Cobots are easy to deploy and redeploy, easy to program and set up in-house, require minimal changes to existing production floors, can work safely with humans, feature a low initial cost and shorter payback period and are easily integrated with other machines and robots.
They can handle payloads of up to 16 kilograms, can run processes with few or no employees, and are ideal for the automation of processes or products that won’t change over time.
On the other hand, industrial robots are best suited to high-volume, high-speed applications exceeding 1m/s, and require payloads of over 16kg and a reach of more than 1300mm.
Like cobots, they’re easily integrated with other robots and machinery, can work independently, and are perfect for static processes or products.
But despite the similarities, cobots and industrial robots are not entirely equal. Adams says there are still several misconceptions surrounding collaborative robots.
“Cobots were initially designed to be lightweight and easy to use,” he says.
“But today’s cobots are powerful industrial tools that can be integrated with existing machinery and other robots through PLCs and sophisticated programming software.”
While any robot can claim to be collaborative with the appropriate safety mechanisms in place, Adams says there’s a crucial difference with cobots.
“Cobots are in fact the only robots that were specifically designed to work alongside humans. They are defined by their ability to offer versatility, user-friendliness, small footprint and affordability.”
This gives cobots a high level of safety when used alongside human workers.
“Every automated application where humans are present requires a risk assessment – and that includes cobots,” Adams says.
“Based on the assessment, a collaborative application may still require safety mechanisms such as light curtains, safety mats or reduced robot speed. However, cobots are designed to be used within a collaborative workspace and have built-in safety mechanisms to support this use, and a vast majority of our cobots are used without safety cages.”
Just because cobots can do the job of humans, Adams says it doesn’t mean they’re putting people out of work.
Cobots were designed to focus on monotonous, repetitive or injury-prone tasks to free up time for workers to add value to the business in processes which require more thought.
“Often, the arrival of cobots significantly boosts manufacturers’ global competitiveness,” Adams says, “enabling them to outbid competitors in low-wage countries, reshore work and hire more people locally.”
Cobots are also speedy workers, contrary to popular belief. With extra safety devices installed, a cobot can work faster than a human and then either stop or reduce speed once a person enters the workspace.
“Even in applications that handle tasks at the same speed as an employee would, cobots do so consistently without stopping or slowing down over time, which typically increases productivity and quality,” Adams says.
Perhaps the biggest misconception surrounding cobots is that they are not ideal for precision handling tasks.
Not true, says Adams.
“Cobots are suitable for very precise finishing, assembly and electronics tasks,” he says.
“Universal Robots’ e-Series cobots now feature a repeatability of 30 micron (0.03mm) in the UR3e and UR5e models, and 50 micron (0.05mm) in the UR10e and UR16e.”
With its built-in, tool-centric force/torque sensor, the e-Series can handle applications where the force-feedback is paramount to obtain uniform results and repeatability.
Adams says the journey to automating with cobots is an exciting one.
“While there was some resistance in the past, many organisations are now reaping the rewards and cobots are being welcomed by workers.”
Some organisations have gone as far as to name their cobots, and feedback from workers has been that it’s easy to work as a mobile phone.
Universal Robots offers support and training to ensure the seamless integration of cobots into the workforce. For more information, visit www.universal-robots.com.