Whereas the world’s first industrial robot was brought to life in 1962, it wasn’t until 2008 that the first collaborative robot (cobot) made its way onto the scene. As the name suggests, a cobot is a robot that is intended for direct human-robot interaction within a shared space. These robots are designed to work collaboratively with people.
With more than three decades experience in the industry, Australian-based robotic automation specialist The Robot People have seen it all when it comes to robotic technologies.
The Robot People understand the importance of ensuring that operations produce the highest quality products at the lowest possible cost. Their team of highly experienced, process automation professionals utilise the latest robotic technologies from Universal Robots.
Matthew Tisdale, Managing Director for The Robot People said that despite the rapid uptake of cobots in recent years, their key benefits remain an untapped secret for many.
“You can’t beat the fast deployment, small footprint and high safety aspect of a cobot,” Mr Tisdale said.
Regional Director for Universal Robots Asia-Pacific, James McKew, said the partnership with The Robot People in Australia was strong and highly beneficial.
“No one company’s automation requirements are the same and that is why having the skills of our valued partner, The Robot People, on board is a great asset to our brand,” Mr McKew said. “They are helping to make cobot technologies accessible to companies both big and small.”
To properly understand the emerging role of cobots, we need to tackle a few myths.
Myth busting: #1 SMEs are too small to automate…
Tisdale believes that the barrier for deployment by Australian SMEs is still largely based around misconceptions.
“Some of the businesses that we encounter believe that robotic automation is only for large multinationals, and that it is simply too costly and complex to implement; however, this is the furthest thing from the truth,” Mr Tisdale said.
Tisdale argues that cobots should be first prize for SMEs looking to automate. Asked what an ideal candidate for cobot automation would look like, Tisdale said: “They are usually SMEs that are looking for ways to remain cost competitive whilst keeping their labour footprint low. In many cases, they have struggled to find reliable labour, need to increase their productivity, output and quality but may be lacking the time, skill or in-house resources to achieve this.”
With the changing of the supply chain and the ‘new normal’ that we find ourselves in, uncertainty about what is next abounds. “For SMEs, the uncertainty is foremost in their mind. They look to automation to give them the low-cost base and the flexibility that they need to be ‘future adaptable’,” he said.
Problem solving is what The Robot People do best. “Our vast manufacturing experience enables us to design, build and implement sensible automation solutions that deliver the best possible value to our clients. We ensure that not only does the system exceed their expectations, but we also ensure that their staff are adequately trained on how to manage the application and provide ongoing support.
Another issue that SMEs grapple with is that of overtime. “Australia’s SME manufacturers typically operate during ‘daylight’ hours. During the night, assets sit idle as resourcing with reliable staff can be difficult – particularly when the requirement to extend hours are intermittent.”
This is where cobots come into their own. They offer reliable productivity around the clock 365 days of the year without the need for overtime pay or supervision.
Myth busting: #2 Cobots will take our jobs…
Tisdale said that fears about cobots taking away jobs are simply not true. “Employ good people and pay them well; leave the dull and dangerous jobs to cobots and free people up to do more valuable tasks elsewhere in the business,” he said.
“Some of our best projects have been for companies who initially ran one shift and now, with cobots assisting the workforce, they can deploy their existing staff to extend their operation. This provides a huge increase in output and significant unit reduction in cost. The value associated with the increase in output is immense; upscaling from one shift to two makes commercial sense and can make a massive difference to the competitive position of an SME manufacturer.”
McKew seconds this notion. “In our years of business, cobots have been used in companies both big and small to increase productivity and improve efficiencies – not to take away jobs.”
Where is the demand among SMEs?
“There has been a keen uptake in palletising applications,” said Tisdale. “Palletisers can work around people and offer a safe, simple and lean solution to the manual repetition of lifting and moving heavy cartons.”
Recently, The Robot People assisted Ferndale Confectionary with an end of line solution for a palletising application.
Explains Leigh Edward, General Manager for Ferndale Confectionary: “We produce around 12 tonnes of marshmallow per day in various packaging options from 100 to 800 grams. By manually palletising, our team was packing around 7,500 cartons per day – that’s 37,500 cartons per week.”
Naturally, this repetitive motion was taking its toll on Ferndale Confectionary’s employees. “We were essentially employing people to stack boxes and as a result we looked to cobots to help automate this rigorous and monotonous process,” said Mr Edward.
The Robot People recommended a UR10 cobot, with a 10 kg payload, for the job. Pallets can be packed in many different configurations based on the varying shapes and sizes of the cartons. This cobot packs each pallet perfectly – every time.
Mr Edward reports an increase in precision and quality while avoiding the risks associated with repetitive strain injuries. Employees were initially hesitant about their new co-worker, so Ferndale Confectionary decided to break the ice with a naming competition. Fondly dubbed ‘Kerry Packer’, this cobot is now part of the family.
“Our employees are happy that Kerry Packer has taken over the heavy-duty task and this has allowed them to move onto more meaningful tasks. Kerry Packer works without any breaks or days off which is the one of the greatest benefits of deployment,” Mr Edward said.
The Robot People initially programmed the cobot and provided on-site training. “Kerry Packer has not skipped a box for the best part of its 18-month production life with the company,” he said.
“As we expand our business, we will continue to use cobots for palletising and in other applications– it just makes sense.”
On cost of purchase versus payback, Mr Edward reports that they achieved their return on investment in less than one year. “The real win, however, is when you figure out that you have removed 37,500 repetitive movements a week and with it the OHS compensation discussion you may have had.”
“For palletising applications, we recommend the newly launched UR10e with an increased payload to 12.5 kg and a reach of 1,300 mm. This provides further options for clients considering cobots for palletising applications,” Mr McKew said.
Safety is a big motivator for uptake of cobots. “Cobots can work safely alongside humans – without the need for a cage, subject to prior risk assessment. They can also operate independently if needed,” Mr McKew said.
Tisdale backs this: “I can’t tell you how many times I have demonstrated the safety of a cobot by walking into its area while it is working. The safety sensors on a cobot are highly effective. You simply can’t do that with a traditional industrial robot. The effect that it has on maintaining easy access in such a small footprint shouldn’t be overlooked.”
For those looking to deploy a cobot installation, Tisdale said that the lead time is 6 to 8 weeks, compared to typically more than 20 weeks for an industrial robot. “This type of lead time is attractive to SMEs in their quest to become more competitive. Once customers realise how easy it is, they want to install more and that’s the beauty of cobots; they’re flexible and can grow with the changing demands of a business,” he said.
According to Tisdale the ease of redeployment is yet to be properly realised. “Just recently, we changed a carton erector application to a palletiser. When you invest in cobots you are investing in technology that can be easily redeployed to ensure that your products and processes are competitive,” he said.
According to McKew, the passion exuded by Tisdale and his team is unmatched and he suggested they will have a “positive impact … in ensuring the competitiveness of Australian manufacturing.”
“The Robot People are professional, knowledgeable and passionate about our technologies,” he said. “It’s easy to get excited about cobots when you start talking to [The Robot People] – and that’s exactly what we want from our partners.”