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Cobots are meant to expand the range of applications where automated devices can supplement human skills

Image: Universal Robots

Collaborative Robots Coexisting with humans and the need for them today

Jul 2, 2018

Poised for growth through the next decade, the cobot market may hit the projected $95 billion by 2024. Some say that the surge in collaborative robotics will lead to higher unemployment rates, but several experts claim that cobots are not meant to substitute human labour. Cobots are not only improving productivity by taking on the tasks that those human workers used to do—they can enhance manufacturing by speeding up production timelines. The viewpoint section analyses the increasing number of collaborative robots, how they may or may not replace humans, and the steps to be taken when it comes to their safety requirements.

“As digitisation becomes a reality, cobots will be a business imperative” — Vivekanand, Country Manager, India and SAARC, GreyOrange

In the past few years, cobots have emerged as a new solution to improving productivity and complementing the existing workforce on the shop floor and warehouse. With the growing number of online orders, what with various product variants, sizes and dimensions, there has been a need for a more innovative approach towards handling methods, where conventional handling methods are prone to errors. This is why the demand for cobots from industries like e-commerce, retail and FMCG is on the rise. Cobots can identify and pick products from shelves quickly and accurately and help achieve higher picks per hour. Given their agile and light structures, they are ideal for jobs that are particularly repetitive and monotonous, and not exactly popular with humans. As digitisation becomes a reality, these smart machines will be a business imperative.In addition, as costs of cobots decline and they require lower investments, they become easier to integrate into a system. This is the prime reason why cobots are being increasingly deployed across umpteen sectors, not just in large but small facilities as well.

“It is difficult to justify the deployment of cobots in the Indian context” — Ajay Gopalswamy, CEO, DiFACTO Robotics and Automation

Most major robot manufacturers have a ‘cobot’ product range and more are being introduced every year. Statistics that show how many robots are deployed on an annual basis for collaborative applications are not easily available. So, it’s difficult to say what impact cobots have had in the industrial context so far. The adoption of industrial robots in the Indian context is still in its infancy (relative to other industrialised countries). Robots are being deployed primarily to replace human workers, rather than to work collaboratively, so it is difficult to justify the deployment of cobots in the Indian context on an RoI basis alone. There are also many untapped applications that can be evaluated for cobots, such as, assembly operations in the Trim & Final Assembly lines of automotive manufacturers or high product mix applications.

Cobots are meant to expand the range of applications where automated devices can supplement human skills. They are meant to take away the burden of dangerous and fatiguing activities from human labour to enable healthy and pleasant working environments. However, safety norms are just as crucial, which require them to operate at slow speeds when working next to a human operator, which could seriously impact productivity. The ISO/TS15066 is the technical specification for collaborative robot system safety, which defines safe working speeds, force limitations and other aspects for collaborative applications, allowing for harmless collaborative working between the two.

“To be globally competitive, cobots become a need” — Arundhati, Managing Director, Plazma Technologies

The global potential for collaborative robots is huge. Over 300,000 robots were sold globally in 2016 and the demand is growing by 12-14% every year. Indian corporates are realising the need for automation, and rapid ramp-up of flexible operations is the need-of-the-hour. From order to supply cycle, time cannot be minimised without robotisation. Plus, the opportunity with cobots is enormous, as they enable rapid scale-up. IoT and Industry 4.0 will be built into them to allow Predictive and Preventive Maintenance, scheduling jobs and reports at the fingertips of supervisors, managers and management alike. This is where one cobot will talk to another, keeping track of jobs running through the line manufacturing. But there is also the challenge of how to manage this information and feed it into the system in order to become ever more efficient.

Furthermore, there is the dilemma of how to keep the co-worker’s confidence that their job is secure as they work with cobots. To be globally competitive with the best quality and consistency, cobots become a need. Hence, they are here, and we all need to be ready to accept and enhance our lives with them. Nonetheless, in order to avoid cobots from turning into a human resource nightmare, it is imperative that the operators, supervisors and managers, all, undergo a detailed and layered training in simple terms of data gathering, feeding and cobot operational training. This will help them learn to manage, analyse and present this data to become competitive with minimal job cycle time.

“We need to inculcate a feeling of pride for working with cobots” — Ninad Deshpande, Head - Marketing, B&R Industrial Automation

Robots have been around since the 70s and have seen a tremendous accelerated growth in recent years. The Asian market is seen as a major driver for this growth. This transition has to be looked at as an evolution and not a revolution. Likewise, the advent of cobots serves as the next step in future evolutions to come. Robots, primarily to satisfy safety requirements, were bounded by cages. Cobots, on the other hand, which allow humans to work together with robots, do not require bounding in cages. They have the ability to stop immediately, based on human vicinity or touch. This has caught the eye of manufacturing units and factories globally. Indian manufacturing is evaluating such technologies and even considering implementation. In fact, some manufacturing units in India have already adopted cobots. However, not all manufacturing units are ready for this investment and are taking a more cautious approach.

Manufacturing units face the daunting task of convincing their work force to accept such systems in their line, which are used to executing tasks by conventional methods. They have to move forward with the implementation of cobots on shop floors. But this new technology needs its bit of training and knowledge transfer as well. Those working with cobots need to understand how these systems work and how their operation is aiding operators in daily routine. Also, another important part to be learnt about is that, working with cobots is a prestigious task. Manufacturing units need to inculcate a feeling of pride for working with cobots during these training programmes. This makes the operator feel a level above the rest, giving the manufacturing unit a psychological advantage.

“We are not content until the robot is safe in its particular application” — Raj Singh Rathee, Managing Director, KUKA Robotics India

Due to increasingly complex processes, the automation environment is becoming ever more demanding, posing new challenges for industrial robot manufacturers. Like the standard automation about a decade ago, the adoption level for collaborative robots is very low. Indian companies are lagging behind in terms of implementation as compared to global levels, but are slowly opening up to the idea of adopting cobots in their manufacturing processes.

People are divided on what the future will look like with robots in the public domain. While some see robots as humanoid creatures that steal jobs from us, many find them fascinating and dream of a future with them. We, at KUKA, have a clear vision, where robots should assist people, not the other way round. Yet, human-robot collaboration (HRC) also means responsibility. We draw a distinction between safety functions in place to protect people when they are working with a robot and functions that make the robot itself safe.

How safe is the area around the robot? What tools does it use? These are some of the questions one has to consider. We do not believe it right to leave the safety of a robot system up to the integrators or users. We are not content until the robot is safe in its particular application. Once the robot’s application has been clarified, the question should be whether the robot provides the required safety functions, such as, safe collision detection or safe velocity monitoring. The next step is configuring the robot safely within its workspace and then, the accuracy of the force measurement in safe technology. Its resilience should also be tested.

“Collaborative robots are bringing in greater flexibility to the shop floors” — Sameer Gandhi, Managing Director, Omron Automation India

Collaborative robots are emerging as one of the most notable solutions in the industrial automation portfolio, owing to their close, harmonious communication interface with human beings, creating oneness on the floor. This interface has been constantly evolving, enabling them to make inroads to varied manufacturing fields in India, such as, automotive, packaging, FMCG, food & beverage, material handling, etc, aiding makers to live up to the manufacturing needs of tomorrow. Besides, cobots are one of the key components of a smart shop floor. By replacing fixed conveyors and actualising the shift from a conventional ‘hard-tooled cell’ to a progressive ‘flexible-integrated cell’, they are bringing in greater flexibility to the shop floors. They also play a chief role in cementing the symbiotic relationship between humans and machines, but since cobots work without a hard safety cell, their speed and operation can be hampered by the unplanned movement of people or machines around them.

The widening expanse of robots is a noteworthy indicator of their harmony (and not competition) with human beings. Looking at the relationship closely, one should strive to realise that robots automate ‘activities’ and not ‘jobs’. However, as we move on this path of increasing automation and faster deployment of robots – both conventional and cobots – we’ll have to significantly rewrite our playbook. If the threat of mass unemployment has to be mitigated, we have to expedite our efforts to counter the challenges of skills displacement. This needs to be answered well by preparing a skill-up for the current generation and forthcoming of workers at a massive scale.

“The dread that cobots will take away human jobs has been proven untrue” — Sandeep Dawkhar, GM – Robotics, Tooling & System Integration, TAL Manufacturing Solutions

The potential of collaborative robots at a global level is likely to boom in the next five years. However, it will take time for Indian companies to really take off on their usage, which will mainly be decided based upon their pricing and addressing safety concerns. But the main opportunities that cobots bring on board are close man-machine interface and the ability to perform a task quickly, unlike the high amount of time spent on programming traditional robots. You don’t need any special skills or training to make cobots work efficiently. The current pool of technicians can do the job, since all you need to do is teach the cobot what to do, by moving its arms, and the activity gets stored in its on-board memory to be used for the repetitive task.

Since cobots are trusted to make life easier for us this way, it also comes with the fear that they will take away human jobs. That dread has been proven untrue over the years. If we carefully analyse the advent of robots in the industry, we will notice that they have replaced humans in places where there were repetitive, dirty and dangerous tasks. Humans have now moved to higher-end tasks, which need the human brain to be utilised. In fact, this has facilitated the introduction of cobots and maybe higher-end machines in the future.

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