Over the years, improvements in existing technology and the innovation of new automated solutions have brought about technological change. Since its inception in 1960, robotic technology has undergone significant development. During the industrial revolution, the ‘Unimate’ robot made its debut. Unimate was a task-performing robot with an extended arm that had numerous motors installed within the robot. Robotic technology is now recognised by manufacturers all around the world for its multiple benefits, and it is unstoppable.
Industrial robots: Pros and cons
Innovation comes with large and bulky industrial robots that do not require human intervention. Industrial robots have proven to improve productivity due to their capability to work at high speeds. However, industrial robots also come with cons.
As these robots are expensive, they are most likely affordable only to large enterprises. Additionally, the robots require safety fences to ensure that human employees are kept out of danger. Hence, industrial robots may not be a solution for small- & mid-sized manufacturers with limited space and financial constraints. Besides, the robots are not easily programmable; therefore, they require professional engineers to operate and maintain them. Their usage was also limited to a single task, which made them an unnecessary expense for many. As such, industrial robots are used only in large enterprises due to their specific nature.
Embracing robotic technology
While industrial robots have significantly changed the way manufacturers work, the number of limitations has led to a rise in the demand for more innovative robots. According to Allied Market Research, the worldwide robotics market is forecast to develop at a CAGR of 13.5% and is estimated to reach $189.36 billion by the year 2027. Reports have shown that the manufacturing sectors have greatly embraced robotic technology.
As the saying goes, “Our needs will be the real creator.” Innovation in technology has always been driven by consumer needs. With time, small, compact and advanced robots were created. Now, robots are customised to meet the demands of end-users. This brought about a rise in collaborative robots, or in short, cobots. Cobots are designed to work alongside human employees (upon risk assessment), ensuring that the safety of employees is placed as a top priority.
As compared to traditional industrial robots, cobots are compact, requiring less space when installed. With a payback period as short as 12 months, cobots have become an ideal solution for small- and mid-sized enterprises. In addition, cobots are easily programmable, even manufacturers with no programming or robotic background can operate a cobot.
Cobots: A necessity for manufacturing
Cobots are widely adopted by various industries, including manufacturing and automotives. According to the market research firm, Interact Analysis, the market for cobots is estimated to reach $7.5 billion by 2027, up from $400 million in 2017. The cobots market accounted for 29% of the entire global industrial robotics market.
The history of robots has always been closely tied to the automobile industry. Now, cobots have proliferated all over the world and have been deployed in multiple sectors. The COVID-19 pandemic has left manufacturers in distraught conditions. The pandemic has taken a toll on the lives of millions of people, leading to a labour crisis across the globe.
In times of adversity, cobot automation has become advantageous for manufacturers. Besides helping to solve the labour crisis, automation has also solved ongoing challenges, including commodity prices, supply chains, shortened delivery times, and shifting customer expectations.
Cobots are most suited for repetitive operations such as pick-and-place processes and heavy lifting tasks. Cobots relieve human employees from the dull, dirty, and monotonous tasks by working on jobs that require humans’ cognitive abilities. Compared to conventional industrial robots, cobots are flexible and can be deployed to work on multiple tasks. Across all industries, cobot applications are numerous. These encompass tasks including assembly, dosing, finishing, machine tending, handling materials, welding, removing materials, performing quality checks, palletising, and more. The most popular and common applications of cobots are as follows:
What is material handling?
Material handling refers to the movement of production parts, typically on or off a conveyor belt or holding a part in place for production. It is one of the most dangerous jobs in manufacturing lines. Materials such as metal, plastic, and other substances can pose a great risk to human workers. Additionally, many material handling tasks are repetitive, which can give rise to repetitive strain injury.
Assembly and quality assurance
Assembly processes entail the picking and transporting of products ranging from large items to small fittings. The welding of small pieces together and drilling screws require a high level of precision. Cobots can also be deployed to assist with quality assurance. In contrast to humans, cobots can execute monotonous activities without growing weary or suffering from a decline in production performance.
Palletising is the epitome of physically taxing activities that are prone to injuries after working for a prolonged period. The use of cobots for heavy lifting operations not only ensures human workers are relieved from moving heavy loads, but also improves production efficiency. Now, cobots have been widely introduced to conduct palletising activities. They specialise in taking on tedious and monotonous chores, freeing up employees to work on more productive tasks.
Unprecedented levels of competition and increased consumer expectations for speed and customisation have presented challenges for modern firms. The newest technologies promote both mechanical efficiency and human innovation, giving users the best of both worlds.
Cobots have been recognised to boost efficiency and also offer manufacturers a competitive advantage in the market. Below are some of the additional benefits that cobot brings to manufacturers.
Resolves workforce shortage – Cobots provide a promising solution for overcoming labour shortages. Some organisations especially SMEs, have less room to manoeuvre compared to larger ones when it comes to attracting and retaining workers of all skill levels. Millennials and gen Zs are simply not entering the manufacturing workforce at the same rate as older workers are retiring. Hence, businesses need to seek a longer-term solution to their workforce issues.
Productivity – Cobots allow for improved productivity and efficiency. In fact, cobots can achieve a return on investment in as little as 12 months. Cobots reduce the cost of production as well as provide quality products with the least or negligible errors.
Innovation – The world of manufacturing and industrial operations is changing. Exploring business automation is necessary for enterprises looking to increase their competitive advantage and make the best use of limited resources. Cobots have become the perfect companion for manufacturers of all sizes.
Sustainability – Across all industries, sustainability has been one of the most discussed topics. As people are becoming more environmentally cautious, manufacturers need to rethink their business strategies. Businesses are pressured to demonstrate how they are cutting their emissions and reducing harmful waste.
Boosting manufacturing excellence
As collaborative robots continue to prove the positive impacts they can potentially bring to businesses of all sizes, the deployment of cobots in the manufacturing sector rises. Automation, or specifically, cobots offer organisations a cost-effective and long-lasting solution. These advanced robots are evolving with technology to become more complex. Furthermore, the combination of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning has elevated the level of robotics technology. With the help of cutting-edge technology, cobots will be able to enhance operations in factories and even offer useful data analytics, such as predictive analytics and recommendations for process improvement.
Industry 4.0 has indeed revolutionised the manufacturing industry. Automation has been placed at the centre stage, further establishing itself as the pillar of digital technologies. As we move towards Industry 5.0, digital transformation will become more meaningful. The perfect collaboration between humans and machines within the digital ecosystem will drive a change in the future of manufacturing. The collaboration between man and machine will increase, in which robots do strenuous and repetitive work while humans act as the creative architects. Human creativity and smart technologies will become a decisive force soon.