Workshops no longer have to choose between humans and robotic automation, they can use cobots to empower humans. These relatively new collaborative robot arms allow humans to work more efficiently on all aspects. Cobot arms adoption is only starting to take off and is expected to be exponential over this decade.
Cobots are robots capable of working alongside humans. The term is a replacement for longer descriptive term collaborative robots. Cobots should refer to any form of robot working in close proximity to humans, but it is mostly used for robot arms.
A cobot arm is different from the traditional industrial arm in that it usually shares the same work area with humans. Instead of being confined to cages or designated areas. Modern cobots can also be moved with relative ease from one station to another as the work nature evolves. They usually require less or no maintenance over long periods of operation time.
Cobot arms, as the name suggests, are human friendly. They are not intended to replace human jobs, instead, they make the job of a human worker easier and more efficient.
Cobots were first patented in 1997 by two professors at Northwestern University. A decade later practical cobot arms started to appear and the concept was adopted by established manufacturers too.
Initially, cobot arms were hand-powered, then very weak motors were added. This approach was justified at the time, as sensors were not as versatile as they are today. The first practical manifestation of the concept was in 2008 when a cobot arm capable of manipulating 5kg payloads was safe enough for humans to work around it. By 2015, cobot arms could carry payloads matching to similar-sized industrial robot arms.
Today, most cobot arms still require an engineer for setup and maintenance. However, this might change with innovative approaches that could allow average human workers to program and adjust cobot arms directly.
The interest in cobot arms globally is trending upwards since 2015. This can be seen in Google Trend for cobots and is in line with “MarketsandMarkets” research forecast estimating 41.8% CAGR (compound annual growth rate) for cobots. Interact Analysis expects the industry to be worth €4.6 billion by 2027, which would amount to 30% of the global industrial robot market.
The Robotic Industries Association (RIA) stated in a report regarding the future of collaborative robots that they expect exponential growth for collaborative robots given their proven ability to provide ROI, reputation for high productivity, and low initial costs.
At DegreeSign, we believe cobots will overtake traditional industrial robots as they align naturally with humans increasing industrial needs without trying to replace humans. Our upcoming M2 Cobot is a modern collaborative robot arm made of repeatable models, which reduces its BOM (bill of materials) to a minimum compared to other collaborative arms on the market.
M2 Cobot arm to have an integrated active safety (non-passive), this should allow it to stop at a distance prior to impact. This is arguably much better than stopping upon impact like virtually every other cobot on the market. In addition to the extra layer of safety, M2 Cobot is planned to offer true plug and play experience with the average worker being able to set it up, similar to any modern consumer device.
Cobot arm advantages mainly revolve around flexibility, productivity, and safety. Humans are creative beings and repetitive tasks can have an impact on their productivity. Cobot arms can alleviate such impact with ease by allowing human counterparts to focus on more nuanced tasks at hand, where cobots are also better than humans at tasks that require repetitive accuracy, e.g. tightening screws.
The ease with which a cobot arm can be programmed allows for the collaborative robot functionality within the workshop to evolve from one day to the next. This is huge when compared to most traditional arms that are brought in for specific tasks and require long periods of programming and testing before any useful impact on productivity can be seen.
The installation process itself for cobot arms is much easier too, as their weight is relatively low. Cobot arms can be installed using human power and basic tools, instead of requiring heavy lifting machinery and cranes. The installation usually takes hours instead of days. This game-changing aspect allows cobot arms to be brought in to help with temporary workloads, rather than having to be placed in one workstation for its entire lifetime. They can also be shared periodically between workstations to work on different tasks based on a schedule.
Cobot arms can create a buffer between workers and hazardous tasks. They can be programmed and monitored by the human worker, and some can even be controlled remotely in real-time. This allows humans workers to avoid hazards such as handling toxic materials, e.g. laying out fibres in epoxy resin, or being exposed to high temperature and fumes, e.g. arc welding.
Cobots are best suited for dull and/or dangerous tasks that humans naturally do not like. They are beneficial for both human workers and businesses, as they increase employees’ satisfaction and business profits, simultaneously. Cobot arms can also work closer to other machinery, reducing human workers exposure, and increasing the utilisation efficiency of the shop floor.
Cobots can perform repetitive handling tasks such as moving products between machines around the clock, which increases the efficiency of these machines, e.g. material loading/unloading and products packaging. A cobot arm can replace whole systems of conveyor belts and moving parts. This not only saves time required to design, assemble, and deploy these systems, but also saves on maintenance usually required for such complex systems.
Cobot arms are also perfect for delicate tasks that require extreme handling care as there is a multitude of gripper attachments such as suction cups allowing the arm to pick and place items without any significant squeezing pressure on its sides. The same technology can be used for picking and placing miniature items, e.g. electronic components.
Many cobot arms are equipped with cameras to inspect their work or the work of their human counterparts. The inspection and quality control process can also be done with beyond human vision sensors, e.g. infrared or laser. This coupled with a human worker facilitates the completion of tasks that would be unpractical otherwise.
The first generation cobots proved helpful in complex manufacturing environments, especially in the welding process. Welding requires extensive human skills. Older industrial robots working on welding still required programming for possibly days before doing a single job. Industrial robots also had limited capacity for complex welds on their own. Humans could not help either, as these industrial robots usually are considered a hazard to humans.
Cobots change this where not only can humans work closer to them and program them in minimum time, but they could also work with them on complex tasks. For welding, this means a human can focus on aligning the pieces while the cobot arm can hold the torch and move along the defined path.
The adoption trend of cobot arms can be linked to the cost per payload decline over the years. Cobots vary in price but are generally priced around €4,000 per kg of payload, i.e. a cobot arm with 10kg payload would probably cost around €40,000.
More recently, many cobots have started to push the price per kg of payload to hover around €2,000. Our upcoming arm, M2 cobot is expected to be priced around €1,600 per kg of payload. As designs get more efficient future cobots are expected to be priced closer to €1,000 per kg of payload.
The future of the cobot arm revolution is bright as they continue to add huge value to every industry they get deployed into. Since cobot arms are relatively new, their applications are just scratching the surface. Cobots deployment is expected to expand into mainstream deployment, to be an essential tool in any industrial setting from the smallest workshop to the largest factory.
Cobot arms require low to no maintenance and this is likely to continue. It is also possible that cobots will self-maintain themselves, as they get more modular in their structure, making them even more reliable. This together with plug and play designs would reduce their overhead setup time to a minimum and allow for wider adoption by the smallest of workshops.
Cobot arms are getting more powerful and their payload to arm weight ratio is getting higher every year. Future collaborative robots might be able to carry themselves if the payload-to-weight goes beyond 1:1. The motor technology is also advancing, which could allow future cobots to have a natural smooth movement that is more in sync with their human counterparts.
The future cobot arm is expected to assist human hands with new and better gripper attachments. These grippers are getting softer and more accurate, picking items in new innovative ways, e.g. using flexible materials and fluid pressure. The increased versatility of future grippers will likely reduce or eliminate the need to swap grippers to fit different applications.
Cobot arms are expected to get more integral with humans using emerging technology, such as augmented reality. They might take advantage of more advanced AI too, in order to better understand human workers needs and adapt accordingly.
In short, future robot arms will likely be cobots and get more human friendly. Bulky clunky robots will likely fade away and dangerous industrial robots might go extinct. Cobots resemble the future of robotics, where man and machine find harmony and work together for a better world.