Small, flexible and able to work near humans, collaborative robots are gaining ground as a valuable tool in the manufacturing industry. But manufacturers that want to make the most of these robots need to guide their system design and deployment with principles that support collaboration between man and machine.
A recent study by ABI Research found that 13% of manufacturing companies surveyed have collaborative robot systems in operation, while another 15% expect to have them operational within the next year. Dan Kara, Research Director of Robotics at ABI Research, said that while the adoption of industrial robots has been limited by high costs and complex programming requirements, co-bots are easy to program, flexible and can work safely in close proximity of humans.
Co-bots can now be acquired for as little as $30,000 and offer manufacturers an easy way to automate small, simple processes.
Samuel Bouchard, CEO of Robotiq, a leading manufacturer of plug-and-play collaborative robot tools, told Chief Executive that while co-bots are becoming less expensive and easier to use, manufacturers need to start with a plan and understand the principles of robotics. Bouchard said the barriers to adopting aren’t the machines themselves but “everything around them” in what’s known as the robotic cell.
“manufacturers that want to make the most of these robots need to guide their system design and deployment with principles that support collaboration between man and machine.”
“The robot itself is easy. But you need tooling, programming, the ability to interface with other machines. Then there’s the project management standpoint. The question is how do you go from manual process to using a co-bot,” he said.
Manufactures can work with consultants or integrators to put co-bots in practice, but they need to start by identifying what they’re trying to accomplish. Bouchard outlines in his book Lean Robotics: A Guide to Making Robots Work in Your Factory, four main principles of how manufacturers should adopt and deploy robotics processes in their operations.
The first principle is to put humans above robots, not only in terms of safety but by deploying the robot as a tool to better utilize the human’s knowledge and experience. Another principle is to focus on the output of the robotic cell. Bouchard said this starts by understanding the end product, the process and working backward to eliminate waste.
Second, a common mistake is that organizations that are new to robotic processes will try to mix manual and robotic processes together, Bouchard said. “We really want them to work in a more systematic way. To understand the manual processes and come up with a robotic cell concept that will fill the gap,” he said.
A third principle is to minimize waste of not only materials but also of human potential. Bouchard said this is when human employees are capable of making greater contributions to processes or the organization, but are prevented from doing so because of other tasks they need to perform. A fourth principle is to leverage the organization’s skills and the flexibility of co-bots to use it as a tool to drive continuous improvement.
“What you should do is take small steps in the direction of perfection,” he said. “Your first robotic cell will not be your last….Once you overcome the challenge of installing your first cell, you’ll already be looking for the next one,” Bouchard said.
He noted that the most optimal scenario of robotics is where humans and machines can work together, with robots handling the tedious tasks and humans providing the judgment and ability to adapt. At a time when manufacturers are struggling to find talent, Bouchard said co-bots can help make the most use of human labor. “You don’t want to [waste] human potential just standing in front of a machine doing the exact same movement day in day out,” he said.
Bouchard said that while a manufacturer’s first robot project can seem daunting, it quickly opens up the door to other opportunities. The flexibility, mobility and small size of co-bots means that they can be programmed and used to handle multiple tasks. This allows them to grow with a manufacturer’s operations or adapt depending on the availability of human labor.
More companies are offering solutions to make co-bot deployment and operation easier than ever with “plug-and-play” functionality. Robotiq’s Skills software offers an easy platform to put together preset skills to reduce the complexity of complex robotic tasks. And the Insights web application measures the robot’s performance, allowing users to continually tweak their machines and processes for optimal productivity. Bouchard said employees can now be trained in only a half day to use a co-bot and program it to do simple tasks.
“Once people get their head around their first project, they understand the potential. They understand the limitations. We see a lot of people who bought a first robot six months or 12 months ago, who are deploying on a much larger scale these days,” Bouchard said.