Collaborative Robots: How To Decide if Cobots Are The Right Choice

22 September 2021
Cobot robotics collaborating with human
Catherine Bernier
Content Manager
,
Content for Cobot

Collaborative Robots are built to work alongside humans, increasing automation and productivity. Learn how and why cobots could impact your business.

Collaborative robots (cobots) are a relatively new type of robot in the industrial automation industry. Despite this, they are taking the industry by storm. You will learn the basics of collaborative robots through the following topics: 

Cobot price check: Get quotations from suppliers on collaborative robots for free via HowToRobot.com 

What Is a Collaborative Robot?

The collaborative robot was developed and released around the turn of the century. Its purpose is to perform automated tasks around human operators. This differs from other stationary industrial robots. Those robots are intended to be isolated from humans. This is achieved using physical barriers and other safety devices. Collaborative robots include unique functionality to make them appropriate for working around people. These features can include things like:

  • Speed limitations
  • Payload capacity limitations
  • Force detection

Technically, collaborative robots could come in any form of robots. However, the six-axis design is the form in which almost all collaborative robots are commercially available. This design makes the collaborative robot ready for a wide range of applications.

Collaborative robots have some stark differences with the industrial six-axis robot. They are designed to work around people, unlike the industrial type. Additionally, collaborative robots are easier for non-experts to interact with. This includes reprogramming and adjusting parameters on the robot. The development environment is typically graphical and intuitive. This is opposed to the more complex development environment of industrial robots.

Cobots also are lightweight compared to their industrial cousins. This allows them to be paired with mobile robots to perform in dynamic environments. A cobot could be performing a machine tending task for a period of time. Then, when it is needed elsewhere, the mobile robot will transport the cobot to another area. At this point, it can perform its next task. This gives the cobot much more flexibility to have an impact on your manufacturing environment.

Cobots have strict design limitations defined by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). So you can be sure from brand to brand there is a baseline level of “collaboration” and safety specifications that are respected. 

ISO defines 4 types of collaborative robot operation modes: 

1. Power and Force Limiting

This method institutes force limitations via a force feedback system. This means that if the robot contacts a person or object, it will stop its motion. Considering the inertia of the robot, its force and speed need to be limited to stop as needed. The “collaborative speed” is defined as no more than 250 mm per second. It should be noted, this does not mean there is zero danger when using a collaborative robot. Every application is unique. A risk assessment should be conducted and properly applied to ensure a safe work environment. 

You need to perform a risk assessment for any robot type in their whole application and when redeploying to a new station or a new task. In brief, it consists in evaluating the risks and addressing them.

Power and Force Limiting is the most common method of cobot operation. It allows for the closest work envelope between human and robotic operators. This mode supports minimal productivity limitations or interruptions. This method also doesn’t require external equipment to be functional. This is because the force feedback system is inherent within the robot. This system is a combination of hardware and programming.

2. Speed and Separation Monitoring

This method uses sensing equipment to monitor the surrounding area. This is done to control the robot's movement. This area is sometimes referred to as the extended work envelope. Generally, this equipment is monitoring the area for humans or equipment. As an operator or forklift approaches the work cell the robot will react accordingly. It will either slow down, restrict its range of motion, or both until the human or object enters the stop zone. At this point, the robot will stop all motion. Once the obstruction is removed from the defined zone the robot will begin moving again. This type of human-robot collaboration can also be implemented with industrial robots.

3. Hand Guiding

Hand guiding is essentially the remote operation of a robot by an operator with the use of a control module. This is often seen in lifting applications for heavy and dangerous materials. This traditionally required an operator to take over motion control. 

This technology is now utilized in the ability to “hand teach”. This functionality comes with many modern collaborative robots. An operator can hand guide the robot using controls on the robot to teach steps in a process. An industrial robot would need a force-sensing device to have a teaching capability. 

4. Safety Monitored Stop

Safety monitored stop is a collaboration mode that we see often, even for industrial robots. Whenever a human enters the working area of the robot, it will stop completely. Systems like laser curtains, emergency stops, special locks on the cell doors are used to detect if a human enters the area. Maintenance teams are also using this collaboration mode to work on the robots.

Many collaborative robots deploy more than one of these methods. This makes them able to be flexible and operate in dynamic environments. It should be noted that every application is unique. A risk assessment should be conducted and properly applied to ensure a safe work environment no matter the robot type. 

Which Industries Use Collaborative Robots?

Collaborative robots have a wide range of applications in many different industries. Thanks to their general-purpose design. Industries that commonly take advantage of cobot technology include:

  • Packaging
  • Pharmaceutical
  • Food and beverage
  • Electronics
  • Logistics
  • Metals
  • Plastics
  • Automotive
  • Aerospace

Cobots can be found in almost any major industry. Their design includes characteristics that allow for a wide range of applications. Are you ready to start looking for solutions for your application or industry? You can visit HowToRobot to begin receiving quotes from several different suppliers. Save yourself time and effort using our network to work for you.

Applications for Collaborative Robots

collaborative_robots_applications

 

You’ve learned that collaborative robots are commonly found in several different industries. What kinds of applications are cobots tasked with? Such applications include:

You’ll notice this is a wide range of applications. This is one of the advantages of collaborative robots. They are a versatile piece of technology. They can be deployed and re-deployed to perform many different tasks in a single facility. 

Collaborative robots have strengths that make them a good choice for many applications. For one, they have internal systems that make them appropriate to work around people. Additionally, they share the six-axis design with the industrial six-axis robot. This gives them a good balance of speed, range of motion, and payload capacity. The freedom of movement of the six-axis design brings specific advantages. Its excellent range of motion won’t limit it from performing specific applications. They are also teachable. This means an operator can hand-guide the robot through its task to teach it. From this point, the robot can perform this task repeatedly. If the task changes, it can be retaught and redeployed. 

Of course, cobots aren’t right for every application. The main factor for this is those same features that allow them to work around people also limit their ability to perform some tasks. For example, consider a task that requires high speed and heavy payload capacity. This could be a high-volume automotive assembly application. The cobot wouldn’t be the optimal choice here. This is because its smaller payload capacity will limit its ability to maneuver the load. This will cause the robot to fault during operation. Faulting will cause workflow interruptions and stop the line. Additionally, the speed needed to maximize throughput might not be achievable with a cobot. Their lower speeds could leave greater efficiency gains unrealized. In this instance, a traditional industrial six-axis robot would be the better choice. So, when should you look to automate with a collaborative robot? 

When to (and Not to) Automate with Collaborative Robots

As you’ve learned, cobots have many applications and advantages. How do you know if your application is right for automation with a cobot? Good project candidates for cobots include some of the following characteristics: 

  • Technicians have little experience with robots
  • Quality control is key
  • The task might change in the future
  • The task requires collaboration with human workers
  • The task is not high-speed and doesn’t require great strength
collaborative_robots_when_to_automate

Technicians have little experience with robots

Robots are complex pieces of equipment. As such, they require experienced technicians to operate and maintain them. A huge portion of this expertise is in reprogramming. Cobots have the ability to be controlled simply and intuitively. Their programming interface is much more inviting to the layman. This means less experienced operators and technicians can operate and reprogram this equipment. Although the entry-level tasks are easy and accessible to less experienced people, these technologies can be ramped up to the complexity and efficiency of their industrial robot cousins. This is why your team should still seek for experts to learn from. They will then develop their programming skills and deploy more complete robotic cells. 

Quality control is key

Like many other robot types, cobots are repeatable and accurate. This is especially the case when compared to their human counterparts. Because of this, high-precision applications can be good candidates for cobot automation. Quality control errors lead to malfunctioning or unacceptable products. This often means less efficient production processes. This is lost revenue to your business. Robotics in general help to reduce these issues. They achieve this due to their precise and programmable nature. Cobots are commonly deployed in these applications.

The task might change in the future

Cobots have the unique ability to be easily “taught” tasks. Inexperienced technicians often find the hand teaching tool helpful when getting started. However, the true value in cobot repurposing lies in the programming interface. Its graphical programming makes it easy to grasp for those new and untrained robots. This means that if a task changes slightly, the cobot program can be changed quickly and easily. This greatly reduces the frequency at which you call an integrator for reprogramming. This reduction in costs leads to more revenue in your pocket and a faster return on investment.

Still not sure if your task calls for a cobot? The HowToRobot advisor network connects you with industry experts that can examine your application and help determine the right solution for you.

The task requires collaboration with human workers

The defining feature of collaborative robots is their ability to work with people. Certain tasks can be optimized by including some automation with human work. Robots are good at handling simple and mundane tasks. People excel at tasks that include characteristics like complex decision-making. Combining the two to work together takes advantage of the strengths of both. Their performance in this manner exceeds what either could do alone. This optimization maximizes your production potential. This increased efficiency provides increased revenue and return on investment.

The task is not high-speed and doesn’t require great strength

The major limitations of collaborative robots are found in strength and speed specifications. This is by design due to their human-centric approach. Tasks that require high-speed mechanics are poor candidates for collaborative robots. This includes tasks such as high-volume pick and place or assembly. Deploying a cobot in these applications might leave unrealized efficiency gains on the table. Additionally, payload limitations will hinder the cobots ability to take on all tasks. Heavy tasks like large material handling applications may not be possible for a cobot. Traditional industrial robots would be a better choice for these applications.

Cobot applications are typically within the strength and speed capacity of humans. However, cobots provide greater uptime than humans do. Robots do not require breaks, shift changes, or sick days. They also provide greater consistency. This is because they do not suffer from fatigue or injury due to moving loads at speed. This provides increased efficiency and throughput potential than human operators alone. 

The Real Deal with Cobots

Cobots are changing the robotics industry and may still be misunderstood. Their performance limitations and higher price point may create doubts about their use in the market. From their growing presence in the last years, we understood that the “ease-of-use” is the main driver for growth and more accessibility by SMEs. They have opened a new market for robotics, the one without the resources for complex automation. Although the “real” collaboration human-robot is rare as of today, cobots have opened the world to new possibilities; easier to learn and use robots and future true collaboration human-robot. That being said, the future still needs to be written.

Cost Considerations

The cost of the equipment is always a major factor in the ROI calculation. You may be surprised to learn that collaborative robots are often more expensive than a comparable industrial robot arm. However, industrial robots carry heavier secondary costs. These are often unnecessary for collaborative applications. For example, industrial robots will always require additional safety equipment. This safety equipment includes things like:

  • Light curtains
  • Safety scanners
  • Fencing
  • Shields
  • Emergency stop buttons

Additionally, the non-collaborative industrial type is more difficult to integrate. This is largely due to their more complex programming environment. These robots will require experienced technicians and programmers to install and set up. Maintenance costs are higher for industrial robots as well. Industrial robots are often more expensive after integration compared to collaborative robots. This is the case even if the cobot by itself is initially more expensive. A reasonable cost for an average cobot in a standard application will be around $35k - $60. 
 

You’ve learned some of the many uses of collaborative robots in the industry. How do you know if this investment is right for you? What returns might you gain? HowToRobot’s Investment Calculator allows you to estimate savings and identify areas of improvement in your facility, analyze costs, and calculate your ROI.