If you thought robots were going to take over all of our factory jobs, you probably never considered the collaborative robot, or cobot. These machines are designed to work with and assist humans in the factory environment. Rather than to remove humans entirely from the process, machinery is quite capable of facilitating a variety of jobs that improve accuracy, safety, and precision. So what are the top 5 questions you should ask yourself before going with cobots in your factory?
#1 – What long term flexibility are you looking for?
Are you always going to need a robot that collaborates with a human? Or might your needs change to a more automated approach? This is the primary question you should ask when deciding if your company will benefit from a collaborative robots. Cobots are great at facilitating human machinists and assembly line workers. They are designed to take the load and strain off the human body, improve the precision of tasks, and improve worker speed. But are you looking at keeping humans on the factory floor? Do you need the capabilities of a real person to make judgment calls or fine tune operations? In this case, cobots would be suitable for your needs. If, however, your plans are to go fully automated in the next couple of years, cobots may be an expensive short-term solution.
#2 – How easy are the programming installation and setup?
In short, what can you expect from the setup process? What assembly is required? How long will it take to get one cobot up and running? Will this interrupt workflow? In general, cobots are advertised to have an easy setup process. Check out some videos on YouTube to see what you can expect from different manufacturers. This video from Omron shows how easy it can (and should!) be.
Then evaluate what cobots offer, or require, in terms of updating and customizing the programming. Will you need a dedicated programmer to make sure these machines work properly? If so, that’s a lot of pressure to put on someone in-house. When you have humans and robots working closely side-by-side, safety is of paramount importance. One should expect that the programming is simple and that safety features are already included in software packages provided by the manufacturer.
#3 – End-of-Arm-Tooling?
What about the end-of-arm-tooling (EOAT)? If the cobots you’re interested in are limited to only one or two applications then they’re not much different than traditional robots or machinery. Cobots are most useful when they are able to handle multiple tasks without changing your assembly flow. CNC, injection molding, pick and place operations, and welding are just a few of the possible applications that one single cobot should be able to perform. Also, if these tools happen to be dangerous, like a bladed instrument, for example, safety concerns may render this machine impractical as a cobot. Can it still operate without the need for a human operator?
#4 – What safety advantages can they provide?
With collaborative robots, your operators and engineers are working in close quarters with a robot. What are your controls and safety mechanisms? Did the manufacturer miss any concerns that are specific to your factory? What authoritative bodies conducted these safety tests? On the other hand, think about the preventative advantages that a cobot can offer. Reduced repetitive stress injury to your staff and a reduction in accidental, human-caused injuries alone are worth the investment.
#5 – What are the operational ranges?
How close to the base can the cobot work? How far away vertically? What about horizontal reach? These aren’t just necessarily ways to boast about the machine’s capabilities, these are features that may render the cobot inadequate in your factory. Take an assessment of where you will use the cobot in your assembly process. How much room does it have to move? Which cobots from each manufacturer are capable of working safely in this space? Make your choice on the maximum dimensions that will work for your factory’s needs.
Another thing you’ll want to consider is the cobot speed. In general, cobots move slower than industrial robots. How much will this impact your production line? If speed is vital to your assembly, or if a reduction in speed will impact turnaround, then you may be better off going with a standard industrial robot.
If you don’t plan on having a human working closely with your robots, then cobots may not be the way to go as they are designed to work alongside a human counterpart. However, this design feature comes at the cost of speed and future flexibility in terms of the robot’s application; you might want to consider industrial robots and other automation solutions. Cobots offer a lot of advantages when humans are essential to the manufacturing process, but they aren’t a solution for all automation needs.
Written by: B.A. Durham