The field of collaborative robots is currently the hottest area of interest within the robotics industry, and with good reason. The notion that humans can now work safely, side by side with a robot employee is both intriguing and ground-breaking. The recent interest in this field has paved the way for examining collaborative robot technologies that exist in the market today. From a business perspective, however, there is still much to be discovered. The following section illustrates two-pronged research approach that has generated insights of interest to both end users and robot manufacturers alike.
Automation is growing very rapidly in the aerospace industry, which is leading to many opportunities for robot manufacturers. This industry is also one of the most demanding in terms of robotic payloads. End users in aerospace often find themselves working with large, heavy parts. Because of this, safety-rated monitored stop applications have emerged as one of the most common types of collaborative robot operations. For these types of applications, many end users are making use of traditional, high-payload robots (ABB, KUKA, FANUC, etc.) complete with sensors and safety equipment.
In a recent interview with RIA, an aerospace executive described an example of a safety-rated monitored stop collaborative robot application: “During a robotic process, a worker can step into the workspace and clean or wipe off a part. Then, leave the space and press a button, for the process to resume. The entire system doesn’t have to be shut down completely for the interim cleaning task.”
Some aerospace users are also employing safety-rated soft axis and space limiting operations. This optional feature, available on newer robots, may have different names depending on the robot manufacturer, but the functionality remains the same. Safety-rated software is used to control the robot motion so that restricted space can be more flexibly designed. Case studies have shown that that this saves both floor space and cost in the system design.
Despite the high payload demands, power and force limiting robots (PFLRs) are also finding their niche in this industry. A number of users have already deployed Baxter (Rethink Robotics) and UR (Universal Robots), just not for the heavy-duty industrial applications.
The main reason users haven’t adopted as many PFLRs is the lack of available applications, not price: “Those (PFLRs) are suited for the small pick-and-place type of applications and we just haven’t had that many applications to apply them,” an end user told RIA. “Price is not a primary factor.”
Instead, these robots are deployed for development work and other new areas. For example, Baxter robots are currently being deployed in this industry to test applications to reduce ergonomic issues associated with workers performing repetitive motions. In the past, end users in aerospace were unable to apply as much automation as they wanted because the technology wasn’t advanced enough and systems were too difficult to develop. Now, with offline programming capability and increased machine accuracy, as well as the need to remain competitive in the current economic environment, everything is coming together.
Collaborative robots are certainly finding their place in the aerospace industry, but the need for humans isn’t going away. All of our interview participants were quick to dispel the misconception that collaborative robots are coming to take human jobs. Instead, they suggest, we need to view them for what they are, productivity enhancing tools for humans to use.
A leading aerospace company elaborated on this need for collaborative human-robot interaction (HRI): “We have been very successful in applying robots to small subassembly kinds of operations. But when you start getting into much larger parts, you have a stronger requirement for human and robot interaction, more-so than you might have in an automotive plant. You can’t fully automate all the processes. There are a lot of manual technical operations that still have to be done. So you would like to do those with people nearby and have the capability to know where somebody is and safely operate in that environment. It’s not practical to have all the fencing around.”
The lack of a need for rigid safety fencing is a feature of collaborative robots that many in this industry value and it factors strongly into the purchasing decision.
The automotive industry has been the single largest driver of the robotics industry worldwide for decades. Today, automotive OEMs, as well as tier suppliers are making use of new collaborative robot technologies. Below we will examine some applications in which automotive users are deploying collaborative robots, as well as their desires for the technology in the future.
Similar to the aerospace industry, many current applications of collaborative robots in automotive applications are for ergonomic issues, meaning the robots are often taking over dull, dirty and dangerous jobs. Quality, however, is also of great importance. In a majority of cases, a collaborative robot can control its forces better than a human, and therefore be more consistent.
Traditional robot installations with safety fences are fixed points of production and require significant rescheduling for different automotive models. The relative inflexibility of these traditional cells often leads to increased costs (both in time and money) when users need to move or repurpose them. Power and force limiting robots allow them to move the robot to new positions in 1-2 hours and continue production. Saving on cost of production downtime and reducing the needed floor space are valuable benefits of collaborative robots to some automotive users. Another popular form of HRI is intelligent lift assist robots. Complete with servomotors, they are used for hand guiding large or difficult to handle parts.
The deterrent for some automotive users with regard to newer, highly publicised, PFLR type collaborative robots (Baxter, UR, etc.) has been the cost and availability relative to the overall capability of the machines: “Light-duty payloads, fairly slow, and pretty expensive,” remarked an automotive OEM. Since the price point and overall capability of these machines are still limited, many end users are waiting to see what each robot manufacturer’s response is to these newer models. “It (collaborative robotics) is a very fascinating, exciting emerging field, but somebody will have to take a larger step for it to be practical for people like us (automotive OEMs) to embrace and start running with it.”
In applications where collaborative robots are already in use, however, human workers have reacted to them positively: “It’s a boring and dull job that the robot is doing and they (human employees) are happy to look forward to doing other jobs. We’re not destroying jobs. We’re shifting them to more interesting applications.”
Currently many of the collaborative PFLRs being installed by automotive users have a limited 10 kg payload. This is a problem for many users, who would like to see that payload ceiling increase to 30 kg at a minimum. Some automotive OEMs are actively supporting research in that direction.
The demands of the electronics industry are markedly different than the aerospace and automotive industries. Processes that electronics manufacturers would like to automate include creating circuit boards, final assembly applications, inserting parts into injection moulding, metal stamping, and numerous other CNC processes. In order to be automated effectively, these processes require a great deal of flexibility, precision, and speed out of a robot system. Today’s collaborative PFLRs are not precise enough yet for these operations.
Electronic manufacturing processes are, in many cases, less demanding from a payload perspective than those in aerospace or automotive. As a result, some electronics companies are more motivated by factors such as ROI (price), small footprints, and the ability to omit safety fencing when it comes to collaborative robots.
Take for instance, a circuit board assembly line – At the end of the line, someone needs to remove the circuit board from the conveyor and load it into different test stations, and then based on the performance of that test, it goes to another conveyor belt. This is a great application for PFLRs. Users can deploy a PFLR for 20-30 per cent of the total cost of deployment of a traditional robot for these tasks.
Some also noted that the more sophisticated PFLRs being offered by traditional robot manufacturers are ‘legitimately performing robots’ but the price point is too high, so they can’t use them: “Normally, a robot is a quarter or less of the total installed cost, so if you buy a $20,000 robot, it’s hard to integrate it for less than $80,000 or $100,000. The best-case scenario might be $50,000.” – Worldwide Electronics Manufacturer
For a traditional robot system, there is a great deal of fixturing and tooling necessary for any given application. Since some electronics companies need to frequently augment their automation around new products, a problem arises when they need to redeploy these traditional robot cells, an end user told RIA: “We may only get 30% of the cost back after redeployment. The other 70% is lost because it was targeted at the original application.”
On the other hand, electronics companies can buy a PFLR for approximately $25,000 and deploy it for another $10,000. Then if they want to move it to a new application, they may only need to spend another $5,000 to $10,000 for redeployment. In most cases, the selling point for these companies is centered on this fact, where the majority of the value invested in a collaborative robot system is easily reusable.
Assembly is an important area in the electronics industry, but one that hasn’t been effectively penetrated yet by collaborative robots. This is due to the lack of capability in the machines themselves, and the high cost of custom feeders and tooling. Technology like machine vision is helping make collaborative robots more functional, but not at a pace that will change users’ employment of them yet. For new application areas in the electronics industry to open up for collaborative robots, users need to first see better vision, better feeders, and better dexterity.
Adding this functionality while keeping the price points low will surely prove to be a challenge for collaborative robot manufacturers. Even then, while increased functionality is important, some electronics manufacturers are still motivated most by ROI: “The fact that we can deploy a robot cell for say $35,000 is really, by and large, the enabler for us to use these robots (referring to PFLRs). It’s not that they are bringing new capabilities to the table, or that they are expanding the realm of applications that robots can be useful, because no one is really addressing the application issues at the moment.”
Collaborative robotics certainly has a promising future, but there are still challenges that need to be overcome. In aerospace and automotive, for example, many users would like collaborative robots to have higher payloads and faster speeds, while some life sciences and plastics users instead desire easier programming and increased precision. Further, in the electronics industry, ROI and total cost of deployment seem to be the most important factors for a number of users.
Robot manufacturers are developing different types of collaborative robots in order to address those needs. Power and force limiting robots (PFLRs) are often thought of as “the face” of collaborative robotics, with companies like Rethink Robotics and Universal Robots receiving a lot of recent publicity, but they do not represent the only form of collaborative robot operation. There is also hand guiding, speed and separation monitoring, and safety rated monitored stop for end users to consider.
If there are two things that end users and manufacturers agree upon, it’s the need for robust safety standards and educational programs to further the understanding of collaborative robots. This is already starting to take shape with the ANSI/RIA R15.06-2012 standard, the ISO/TS 15066 standard, and the International Collaborative Robot Workshop events. This is a growing field that offers many new possibilities for manufacturing in a number of industries. The ability for humans to work safely alongside robots holds the potential to transform workplaces around the globe.