When asked how they envision a robot, most people either think of huge, unwieldy robots working in fenced-off areas in large factories, or they think of futuristic cyberbots mimicking human behavior.
But somewhere between these two scenarios lies an emerging reality: a new class of robots, dubbed collaborative robots due to their ability to work directly alongside employees with no safety caging. These kinds of co-bots are poised to bridge the gap between fully manual assembly and fully automated manufacturing lines. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the small and medium businesses sector, that up until now viewed robot automation as too costly and complex to consider.
Unlike their big brothers working behind glass at automobile plants and other big assembly lines, collaborative robots are lightweight and flexible. They can easily be moved and reprogrammed to solve new tasks, meeting the short-run production challenge faced by companies adjusting to ever more advanced processing in smaller batch sizes. The automotive sector still comprises roughly 65 percent of all robot sales in the U.S. However, the Robotic Industries Association quotes observers who believe only 10 percent of companies that could benefit from robots have installed any so far.
Lowering the entry barrier
The reason that number is so low is primarily due to three challenges now addressed by the new collaborative robots: cost, user friendliness, and applicability. Let us start with the financial issue.
Even where workers are affordable, the next generation of complex products will require assembly adaptability, precision, and reliability that is simply beyond the skills of human workers. According to the old rule of thumb, the cost of a robot is equivalent to one worker’s two-year salary. But collaborative robots are closer to one fourth of that price. Combine that with the faster turnaround time that robots bring to the workplace, and robotic technology demonstrates that the offshore exodus does not make good business sense any longer.
Instead, the new robots become a high-tech currency that is changing the wage wars into a competition over increasing product quality and quick turnaround.
A plug-and-play robot
With traditional robots, the capital costs for the robots themselves account for only 25 to 30 percent of the total system costs. The remaining costs are associated with robot programming, setup, and dedicated shielded work cells. The “out-of-box experience” with a collaborative robot is typically less than an hour. That is the time it takes to unpack the robot, mount it, and program the first simple task.
This leads us to user friendliness. Instead of requiring skilled programmers, this new class of robots comes with a tablet-size touchscreen user interface, where the user guides the robot arm by indicating movements on the screen. Or, the user can simply grab the robot arm and show it the desired path of movement. The interface is compliant with most industrial sensors and programmable logic controllers. Programming for new tasks is easy-as experienced by Danish manufacturer of hearing aids, Oticon, a company impressed by the intuitive user guidance and the precision of the new co-bots. Oticon needed a flexible robot that would be economically viable for short runs. Rapid advances in medical engineering have resulted in constantly changing production processes and a broader range of hearing-aid models that require a robot to handle smaller batch sizes.
Esben Østergaard, Ph.D., is chief technology officer at Universal Robots (UR), and is responsible for the enhancement of existing UR robots and the development of new products. During his tenure from 2001-2005 as researcher and assistant professor in robotics and user interfaces at University of Southern Denmark, he created the foundation for a reinvention of the industrial robot. In 2005, he founded Universal Robots together with two of his research colleagues. They have been granted approximately 30 patents on the technology of the robot. Østergaard also participates in national research projects and is an external examiner at several universities in Denmark.