Jun 07 2017

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Collaborative robots are making automation possible for SMEs (Part 2)

This is the second of a 2-part series addressing the impact of adopting collaborative robots in the SME manufacturing environment. 

Previously, we saw that collaborative robots (cobots) were innovative robots that could collaborate with workers in a shared workspace, instead of being confined behind fences. We also discovered that they were a good fit for SMEs.

In this second article, we will focus on the current applications of cobots and the impact of their continued adoption.

What are the applications?

Collaborative robots open a new field for automation, executing repetitive tasks that until now were still handled by humans. Using grippers, cameras, and sensors, they can locate, pick and place parts, then count and inspect them (watch this video).

Some key applications include:

  • Machine tending (for example CNC or injection molding machines) – At Dynamic Group, provider of complex injection molded plastic components, a UR 10 cobot from Universal Robots takes over the entire injection molding cycle[1].
  • Picking and placing, packing and palletizing – At General Motors, a FANUC CR-35iA cobot is used to stack tires in a crowded workspace. The CR-35iA has a payload[2] of 35 kg (77 lbs).
  • Assembly – At GE Lightning, a Sawyer cobot from Rethink Robotics inserts components into a LED street light fixture before human coworkers complete the assembly.
  • Quality inspection – At Scott Fetzer Electrical Group, a company specialized in power supplies, motion controls and drive systems, UR 5 and UR 10 cobots from Universal Robots are used to test small motors, switching them on for a minute and off for 30 seconds during 400 hours. Data such as max amperage, average amperage and number of cycles are collected by the cobot.
  • Polishing, welding, gluing – At Franke, a kitchen manufacturer, a UR 5 cobot is used to glue mounting blocks to the sides of kitchen sinks, using only the required amount of glue for each join.
  • Assistance for physically demanding tasks – A specific category of collaborative robots provides strength amplification, which helps prevent musculoskeletal disorders.

What will be the impact of collaborative robots?

Cobots favor the automation of many processes in countless SMEs and even large businesses. Therefore, one could wonder what will be the impact of these changes on companies, on workers, on MOM systems[3] and on the society as a whole.

Impact on companies

As could be expected, the introduction of collaborative robots helps increase productivity. At Continental Automotive Spain, changeover times have been reduced from 40 to 20 minutes. At Elalex, a commercial shelving manufacturer, the installation of a cobot freed seven man-hours per day.

Overall, the users of cobots from Universal Robots indicate a payback period from 2 months to 2 years[4], depending on the different customer implementations.

Cobots can also help increase product quality. At Trelleborg Sealing Solution, products are now more uniform from a quality perspective, thanks to automation, which results in increased demand from customers.

Impact on workers

Going over the cliff? The "Thelma and Louise" point. Photo credit: jphilipg

Going over the cliff? The “Thelma and Louise” point.
Photo credit: jphilipg

Impact on workersAt first, the introduction of collaborative robots was a source of anxiety for workers. They were concerned about the complex operation and worried about the cobots costing them their jobs. The two cobots introduced at Scott Fetzer Electrical Group (SFEG) have been named Thelma and Louise because personnel first thought they were driving them off a cliff.

After a while however, employees realized that cobots can help them in their daily jobs by taking over the physically demanding or unsafe activities. It made workers proud and feel empowered as they imagined new uses and viewed cobots as tools to help them at their jobs. At SFEG, Thelma and Louise are now known as a “part of the family” on the production floor.

In many instances, workers are reallocated to other tasks and the increase in sales resulting from the benefits of automation often prevents staff layoffs.

Cobots can also help preserve workers’ mental and physical health by taking care of repetitive and dangerous tasks. For example:

  • At SFEG, a cobot cuts 16,000 wires daily, a manual job until now that could result in carpal tunnel syndrome.
  • At Bajaj Auto, one of the largest motorcycle manufacturers in the world, physically challenging bolt-tightening operations are performed by cobots.
  • At BMW, four cobots now work in collaboration with humans to equip BMW X3 doors with sound and moisture insulation. This avoids elbow strain that required hourly worker rotations when the process was 100% manual.

Impact on MOM systems

As the adoption of cobots increases, Manufacturing Operations Management (MOM) systems will need to adapt.

Some changes will bring more simplicity, others will bring new challenges.

On the simplification side, the maintenance of cobots is usually minimal, so extended maintenance procedures enforced by a maintenance management system appear less relevant. Training by demonstration supported by a user-friendly touch interface means that there is no need to develop and maintain extensive sets of robotic programs.

On the other hand, many capabilities of systems such as traceability, quality, planning optimization, safety management or warehouse management remain highly relevant in an increasingly competitive and regulated environment.

Because cobots are flexible and can be moved quickly from one process to another, Manufacturing Operations Management (MOM) systems need to be flexible enough to quickly adapt to these changes.

Cobots can favor local production environments, meaning more factories with unique processes could add difficulty in coordinating or optimizing global operations. MOM systems should be able to simply manage a distributed production environment (ideally extended to the supply chain), without adding extra complexity. They should also be light-weight, modular systems.

Indeed, if cobots are bringing automation to SMEs, then MOM systems should become lean, simple and adaptive so they can also bring their benefits to SMEs.

Impact on society

Thanks to productivity gains and reduced human labor costs, cobots can help maintain manufacturing jobs in developed countries or even bring back outsourced facilities to their original location. This trend is known as reshoring.

Because of their ease of use and flexibility, cobots can support the trend for massive personalization, along with technologies such as additive manufacturing. They can also support local production in small and medium facilities thanks to their low cost and easy deployment – a trend also supported by additive manufacturing.

Currently, it looks like companies that have used cobots for automation have gained a competitive advantage that helped increase sales and reallocate workers to new tasks.

Will this still be the case, as cobot usage increases, possibly becoming a commodity? As more and more routine tasks get automated, will they be compensated by new jobs? Economists and experts disagree about the impact of automation and artificial intelligence on employment, so I will not risk an answer here!


[1] Picking the part, inserting it in the injection molding machine, starting the process, picking the molded part, transporting it to a trimming fixture and once this is done, picking and presenting the finished part to an operator.

[2] Payload = Carrying capacity

[3] MOM = Manufacturing Operations Management

[4] Based on examining a subset of 8 customer testimonies found on Universal Robots’ Web site.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.apriso.com/blog/2017/06/collaborative-robots-are-making-automation-possible-for-smes-part-2/

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