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Updated: Jan 28, 2019

Forget about robots. Those are so last century. Cobots are the wave of the future.

“Cobot” is a portmanteau of “collaborative” and “robot.” It refers to the new generation of robots designed to interact and collaborate with human beings, rather than simple autonomous operation. The robotics market grew 18 percent in 2017, with cobots driving the rapid market expansion.

Invented in 1996 by two professors at Northwestern University in Massachusetts, cobots grew out of a collaboration between the GM Robotics Center and the General Motors Foundation. The project sought a way to ensure safety when robots worked with human counterparts.

Think of a cobot as a robotic assistant to your existing workforce. Whereas robots generally sit in cages, walled off from human employees for safety reasons, cobots sit right alongside their human counterparts. Made out of smaller parts and lighter materials, their safety protocols err on the side of caution, making them inherently safe.

Loup Ventures see cobot sales spiking from 8,950 units in 2016 to 239,000 within five years, representing a market value of some $5.8 billion. If you’re not looking at cobots as a way to increase your overall manufacturing efficiency, you can bet your competitors are. Asian markets, in particular, are driving the adoption of cobots.

Whereas robots replace human beings outright (though, as we have explored elsewhere, they probably just shift human work from one task to another) cobots exist to help humans. Often, they take on dangerous or tedious tasks humans perform, freeing the humans up to perform safer, more engaging and ultimately more value-adding labour.

Safety is one big motivator for cobot adoption, but another is deploying them in places where traditional industrial robots are impractical. Rethink Robotics’ cobot “Sawyer provides an example: Cox Container had serious staffing issues due to a repetitive bottling procedure sometimes requiring two employees and at other times just one. Even when two employees were present, syncing their work was difficult. Cobots filled the labour gap and increased efficiency. Perhaps best of all, Sawyer was up and running in a single day.

Cobots possess stunning abilities with regard to precision work, a place where traditional industrial robots have thus far underperformed. Fastbrick Robotics’ “Hadrian X” lays 1,000 bricks in an hour, roughly the output of a day’s labour of two human bricklayers.

Cobots also boast curious use cases such as working as gourmet chefs, bartenders, cow milkers and supermarket shelf stackers. Cobots helped to film the Rio Olympics and are being rolled out in the USA by DARPA in military applications.

This has revolutionary implications for automotive manufacturers, but also for furniture, pharmaceutical, metal and heavy machinery industries. Not limited to heavy industrial functions, cobots can assemble, inspect and package.

That’s because cobots are smarter than traditional industrial robots. They learn very quickly on the job. Human employees can easily and intuitively reprogram a cobot for more efficient movements without special training. No engineer or programmer is required to write or edit code.

Frequently, cobots come equipped with Industrial Internet of Things capabilities baked in. In fact, it’s almost impossible for a cobot to perform its job without sensors and smart technology. This is especially true when it comes to the safety features that characterize cobots. This allows for easy integration into big data and analytics applications — or any other IIoT applications your organization might be leveraging.

Hardware and software prices for robots and cobots are projected to drop over 20 percent over the next 10 years. This, combined with increased efficiency and ease of use and installation, makes cobots an ever-more attractive investment proposition.

Even at current price points, cobots offer a lot of bang for the buck. A cobot will probably turn you a profit inside 1 year. Because the installation is simpler, you will also spend fewer man hours on this task. The same goes for reprogramming a cobot, which is intuitive and easy enough for the average technician to perform.

Still, cobots have their limitations. Because they tend to be smaller and, by definition, work around humans, they’re not suitable for heavy manufacturing. That’s where their traditional robot cousins come into play.

And they won’t save much on employment costs. For organizations looking to automate, cobots — again, by definition — do not negate the need for human employees. Instead, they enhance the abilities of humans already on the job.

In addition, before deploying cobots, you will need to perform a risk assessment of your facility, especially if it is at all customer facing. It’s not uncommon for people to be startled by cobots (which can seem a bit uncanny) in a way they simply are not by industrial robots, which look much more decisively like machines.

Furthermore, their safety features can mean frequent work stoppages, especially at first while you work the kinks out. The “collaborative” nature of a cobot means human performance necessarily limits cobot efficiency.

Cobots or robots: which is right for your organization? It could easily be both or neither. Cobots and robots aren’t necessarily in competition with one another. They perform complimentary, albeit similar, roles in the world of manufacturing.

Think of cobots as being a bit like a laptop while industrial robots are more like mainframes. For some tasks, cobots make more sense. For others, nothing but an industrial robot will do.

In any case, the distinction between the two might rapidly evaporate in the next few years.

It’s anticipated that in the near future, we will have access to industrial robots with the safety features of cobots. That will be a serious game changer. For now, however, you will have to look at your organization and see where cobots can enhance human labour where industrial robots can replace it. When working in tandem, cobots and robots can provide your organization with a serious competitive advantage not limited to manufacturing alone.

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