By Emily Newton
The manufacturing industry has been hit especially hard by the pandemic. There’s the obvious impact of potentially sick workers, along with the need for social distancing and strict health requirements. Then there are supply chain issues, many of which mean component or material shortages. Finally, consumer demands have not fallen. Instead, they’ve done the opposite, exploding to unprecedented levels.
Manufacturers have had to pick up the pace, with fewer resources, while hemorrhaging staff due to the current pandemic.
Cobots help alleviate the problem by taking over the gaps in manual labor and boosting productivity to levels never seen before.
The Art of Collaborative Automation: Cobots
Collaborative robots, called cobots, have been around for years now. They have many purposes, but the biggest reason they were developed is to solve a labor shortage caused primarily by a lack of skilled workers. Of course, they also improve efficiency across operations by handling tasks that aren’t well-suited to humans.
Automation and robotics have been around a lot longer. The technology is synonymous with the auto manufacturing industry, where many of the devices first appeared and still play a critical role today. However, most of the classic robots are only capable of handling repetitive tasks with little variation.
Cobots are much different. They are designed to take on complex work—like picking packages in a warehouse, making adjustments on the production line, adding fine-tuned welds, or other tasks. They also work alongside people. More importantly, they aid workers by enhancing their skills and abilities, improving output.
For example, one automated arm might tighten bolts after its human counterpart slides the screws in place. Another might lift heavy supplies or packages and carry them to where they’re needed.
The beauty of cobots and today’s advanced automation machines is that they can be programmed and customized to do nearly anything. They’re often powered by machine learning platforms, a subset of artificial intelligence that relies on vast and intense data analytics.
Dealing with a Pandemic the Machine Way
In a manufacturing setting, dealing with social distancing and contact-limitation requirements can be challenging. Most facilities are already set up to make the best use of a room or space. Now, teams are being forced to spread out further, eliminating the use of valuable real estate.
This could also mean a reduction in staff because there’s simply less room for people to work. A staff reduction could have unfortunate consequences for a company, however, when the demand for its products goes up. Manufacturers are finding it nearly impossible to keep pace.
Cobots help solve both of these scenarios. They can fill gaps on the factory floor while taking on some of the work that manual laborers would have handled. RCM Industries, a machined die-cast parts manufacturer, did exactly that with its production plants—deploying two Universal Robots 10e cobots. They were more than capable of handling the capacity overflow because of a reduction in staff.
Another company, Pearson Packaging Systems, implemented cobots to fully automate palletizing—a process that was previously manual-only. The machines fit safely into confined spaces, and work exceptionally well alongside human laborers.
The Many Benefits of Collaborative Robots
There are also many unseen benefits of using cobots on the factory floor and in warehouses.
- Versatility: Most collaborative robots are programmed through a proprietary software platform with the help of a service provider or in-house software engineers. Old-school robots would generally be programmed to do one task only. Things are different with cobots, however. They can be continually repurposed to match new directives, and their output can scale up or down as necessary.
- Consistency: Cobots are incredibly precise, more so than a human ever could be. They also do not get tired, fatigued, burned out, disgruntled, or offended. When a cobot is put to a task, it will continue doing the work it’s supposed to do indefinitely. The only thing that could potentially stop a cobot in its tracks is a malfunction, but if they are maintained well, that will rarely happen.
- Productivity: Cobots are more precise and consistent, and they also tend to be much faster than manual laborers. Once a process has been optimized with a cobot in place, the system will continue running at unprecedented speeds. The output will always be improved considerably if a cobot is installed and equipped properly.
- Onboarding: Compared to conventional robotics, cobots are much faster to implement. That includes developing the necessary software, programming the devices, and equipping them to work in the factory or warehouse. The larger the operation, the longer it’s going to take, but overall, the install process will be much shorter and faster than that of an average robot.
- Third-party providers: There’s always an opportunity to install native cobots in a facility controlled by an in-house team of developers and maintenance crews. Alternatively, many cobots are sold, serviced, and maintained by third-party providers. They provide all the necessary support to the renter, allowing manufacturers to focus on what they do best while conserving resources.
- Employee satisfaction: For years, we’ve heard of the inevitable wave of job losses due to AI and automation. Statistics show, however, that we’re far from this outcome. About 92% of senior executives said the worldwide rollout of intelligent automation and robotic process automation resulted in improved employee satisfaction. An additional 52% said employee satisfaction increased by 15% or more after implementing the technology. This is because cobots are not taking jobs but helping to improve many existing ones—including those that humans don’t want to do, or cannot do.
Cobots: A Win for Manufacturers
With so much pressure mounting thanks to the pandemic, labor shortages, tumultuous political climates, supply chain issues, and more, cobots help manufacturers solve at least some of the problems that would have otherwise been more challenging.
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About the Author
Emily Newton is the editor-in-chief of Revolutionized, an online magazine that explores innovations in manufacturing, technology, and science.