Driven by the demands of labor shortages and costs, faster product cycles, and higher product mixes, the integration of cost-effective, flexible collaborative robots, or cobots, continues to grow by leaps and bounds. And while challenges remain, innovations by robot manufacturers and a fast-growing ecosystem of peripherals and integrators are helping both small and large manufacturers meet their business goals.
The Association for Advancing Automation (A3) reached out to several large automation integrators to get their input on the drivers, challenges, and opportunities in implementing collaborative robots. This virtual roundtable discussion included Bryon Shafer, general manager at ASG Division, Jergens; Tyler W. McCoy, technical director at JR Automation; Craig Salvalaggio, vice president of operations at Applied Manufacturing Technologies; and Matt Wicks, vice president of product development at Honeywell Intelligrated.
A3: Historically, the primary drivers for small and midsized manufacturers to integrate collaborative robots have been their low upfront costs, fast return on investment (ROI), flexibility, and easy integration – has that changed? What are the most important reasons why your customers need collaborative robots today?
Bryon Shafer, ASG Jergens: Flexibility and easy integration remain primary drivers for small and midsized enterprises [SMEs]. In today’s Burger King “Have it your way” culture, we’re continuing to see a high-mix, low-volume landscape. With its quick deployment and ease of programming, the collaborative robot fits well in this space.
Tyler McCoy, JR Automation: In our experience, we see many of the larger manufacturers as the first to embrace collaborative robots. This new technology has introduced novel application and interaction types, and those manufacturers with a high level of robot experience have been the early adopters to capitalize on it.
Craig Salvalaggio, Applied Manufacturing: Those primary drivers still hold true. However, one of the reasons our customers cite for automation most frequently is the lack of available manpower to do the work. The tasks where collaborative robots excel are often the ones that humans just don’t want to do.
Also, the concept of fast ROI, shorter integration timeline, and ease of use has allowed these manufacturing companies to repurpose labor to work in conjunction with the automation and create higher productivity for the overall factory.
Matt Wicks, Honeywell Intelligrated: From my perspective of robotics in warehousing, upfront costs and fast ROI are the primary drivers. It’s a balance with cobots, as the speed and payloads and generally the total deployment costs are lower than traditional industrial robotics. The balance comes back to ROI — does the reduction in performance and costs translate into a good return? The answer is … sometimes.
A3: What are the biggest challenges SMEs face in that integration — technical, business, personnel?
Shafer, ASG Jergens: Integrating the collaborative robot with another piece of equipment can still be a highly technical endeavor. While most cobot manufacturers have included end-of-arm tooling [EOAT] interfaces, a knowledgeable integrator is still very necessary for integrating the cobot with machining centers, presses, etc.
McCoy, JR Automation: Manufacturers still face a solid challenge in safety validation. In order to avoid being slowed down past a usable rate, many applications still need to be equipped with additional safety sensing to properly utilize the cobot. Gaining an early understanding of this limitation is the key to properly designing a collaborative application.
Salvalaggio, Applied Manufacturing: Too often, we’ve seen manufacturers purchase a robot without fully understanding what they are trying to accomplish and what it will cost to achieve it. There are always investments and considerations above the capital investment in the robot.
The projects with the best chance of success consider infrastructure, company culture, safety standards, risk assessments, workforce training, and return on investment. An omission of any one of these important steps can lead to the automation not providing the anticipated ROI, throughput, and benefit to the operational productivity.
Wicks, Honeywell Intelligrated: It’s probably the perception that if it’s a cobot, it’s easy to integrate. This is not a universal truth. It really depends on what you’re trying to do with the cobot. In general, yes, integration is easier due to the nature of the associated cell safety requirements, but that’s just one part of integration, which may be just as involved regardless of the type of robot.
A3: What are their main decision factors in using cobots rather than traditional industrial robots?
Shafer, ASG Jergens: The three principles, or “3Ds” remain the same in selecting robot type, namely, “Desire,” “Duty,” and “Dollars.” Desire – why do you need the thing, and what purpose will it serve? Duty – how will it serve the purpose with the features and capabilities that it has? Dollars – does it meet your expectations for supplying value?
McCoy, JR Automation: Many companies are still in the exploration stage and are anxious to get systems in house in order to ensure they properly understand the limitations. Others have found use cases where the level of human and machine interaction has proven to be a real advantage.
Salvalaggio, Applied Manufacturing: Given that the task at hand is suitable for a cobot — considering payload, speed, reach, accuracy — the initial cost and deployment timeline is generally lower than that of a traditional industrial robot.
Wicks, Honeywell Intelligrated: For me, it’s all about capability: reach, speed and payloads. Cobots are great, but they don’t have the same technical range as other non-collaborative robots.
A3: What has changed in the collaborative robot industry over the past year or so that has made this technology easier for you to recommend and integrate?
Shafer, ASG Jergens: The increased offerings, and hence competitiveness, in the collaborative space have driven down pricing. This has made the collaborative robot an even more attractive option.
McCoy, JR Automation: As more players have entered the market, and a larger range of reach/payload options have become available, it has lowered the training and application barriers for manufacturers to experiment with cobots and utilize their unique features.
Wicks, Honeywell Intelligrated: Collaborative robotics continue to extend the feature and function beyond the collaborative nature of the arms, which add new dimensions to their capabilities. This includes a wider range of grippers and vision accessories to extend the applications arms can be used in.
This is also true of mobile robotics, but this comes in the form of top appliances such as shelves and conveyors.
Salvalaggio, Applied Manufacturing: The barrier to automation has been lowered by enabling third-party developers to create products such as grippers, software, vision systems, and other accessories to work seamlessly with some common cobot platforms.
A3: What changes do you anticipate or are you hoping to see in the next year or so that will continue to drive the technology and the industry forward?
Shafer, ASG Jergens: Over the next year or two, we are excited for the merging of the collaborative and industrial robots, the marriage of which will produce the “NextBot.” This platform will combine the safety, programmability, and flexibility of the cobot with the speed, accuracy, and robustness of the industrial robot. Tremendous!
Salvalaggio, Applied Manufacturing: There has been a real effort on behalf of integrators to educate potential users of collaborative robots on the considerations for applying them. Well-informed consumers will understand the balance between technical and business objectives and achieve their desired results.
Note: Collaborative robots will be highly visible at the Automate 2019 conference and exhibition, with a full track of speaking sessions (along with mobile robots) and a wide range of exhibitors.The show also features an extensive Integrated Solutions Center to highlight the capabilities of systems integrators. More information about the show can be found at https://www.automateshow.com.
About the author:
Jeff Burnstein is the president of the Association for Advancing Automation (A3), the global advocate for the benefits of automating and the producer of Automate 2019, North America’s largest showcase devoted to automation industry trends, leading-edge technology and business innovation.