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Jeff Rowe
Jeff Rowe
Jeffrey Rowe has almost 40 years of experience in all aspects of industrial design, mechanical engineering, and manufacturing. On the publishing side, he has written well over 1,000 articles for CAD, CAM, CAE, and other technical publications, as well as consulting in many capacities in the design … More »

Collaborative Robots: The Next Big Thing In Robotics

May 12th, 2016 by Jeff Rowe

Robots come in many shapes, sizes, functions, and prices. One of the most interesting areas of robotics that I’ve followed for the past few years are known as collaborative robots.

A collaborative robot (cobot or co-bot) is a robot designed to assist human beings as a guide or assistant in a specific task, whereas a “regular” robot is designed to be programmed to work more or less autonomously. Generally, a cobot  works collaboratively with a human and allows that human to perform certain operations successfully if they fit within the scope of the task and to steer the human on a correct path when the human begins to stray from or exceed the scope of the task.

Because co-bots are relatively affordable, highly adaptable, and almost plug-and-play, small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) are adopting this technology at rapid rates, and some analysts expect this segment will see massive growth in the next few years.

Historically, industrial service robots have been caged for a reason —  to keep humans safe and out of harm’s way. Collaborative robots are meant to safely leave the cage while doing tasks with humans. Collaborative robots come in all sizes and shapes and have integrated sensors and soft and rounded surfaces for safety purposes and to reduce the risk of impact and crushing. The biggest safety feature of collaborative robots is their force-limited joints, which are designed to sense forces due to impact and quickly react to negate potential damage.

Collaborative robots can be placed alongside humans in small-spaced assembly lines, because they are affordable and easily trainable, and because they are flexible to handle short runs, repetitive and boring jobs, and ergonomically challenging tasks.

How Rethink Robotics Baxter Works

Today, the market for cobots is wide open, but current uses for cobots include machine tending, material handling, assembly tasks, and packaging; although they also pick and place components, count, and inspect.

Huge Growth Potential

Currently, sales of collaborative robots represent five percent of the overall robot market with strong growth expectations for the future. In fact, the market acceptance of collaborative robots also are expected to be a significant driver in non-industrial robotic growth. This non-industrial growth will be split and different for differing aspects of the service robotics marketplace but as Tractica, a U.S. research firm, projects, growth will be significant and exponential.


Cobot Market Forecast

The collaborative robotics sector is expected to increase roughly tenfold between 2015 and 2020, reaching over US $1 billion from approximately $95 million in 2014. Some analysts suggest more rapid growth: collaborative lightweight robots will become the top seller in the industry in about two years, selling hundreds of thousands and with prices falling to the $15,000 to $20,000 level. TechNavio, a British market research firm, forecasts the global collaborative robots market to grow at a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 50.88 percent to 2019.

Collaborative robots are gaining popularity because sensors and computer power have become so inexpensive that they are driving down the cost of robots and making them more available to businesses of all sizes, especially SMBs. Also attractive is their ease-of-use: co-bots are easier to train and deploy than big industrial robots.

Rethink Robotics 

Last year I saw a presentation given by Rethink Robotics and its unique product, Baxter.

Rethink Robotics is a venture-funded robotics firm headed by Rodney Brooks and markets a two-armed industrial robot called Baxter with a base price of ~$25,000. Baxter can carry out relatively advanced functions, such as removing defective items from product lines, packing finished items into boxes, and performing basic quality-control inspections. Additional purchase costs include a pedestal, gripper, and a 2-year hardware and software service contract. With an expected useful life of three years, 40 hours of operation per week translates into an average cost of around $4/hour. This comes before additional expenses for electricity, maintenance and repair, but remains highly competitive with manufacturing wages in Asia.


Rethink Robotics Baxter

Rethink also sells a smaller one-armed robot called Sawyer with a base price of $29,000 and similar additional costs as Baxter. Sawyer is designed primarily for machine tending, circuit board testing, and other precise, repetitive tasks, specifically those that take place in the middle of a long assembly line of electronics products. “We’re moving into mass electronics manufacturing,” Brooks said last year.

According to the presentation, qualities of collaborative robots include:

  • Compliant motion control
  • The ability to sense and feel
  • Inherent safety through force limitations
  • The robot’s “face” communicates its intentions
  • Cobots are “trained,” not programmed
  • Cobots provide a novel approach to automation
  • Cobots have flexibility and the ability to be re-deployed
  • With increased utility, cobots have a constantly increasing ROI

Rethink’s collaborative robots adapt to real-world variability, are agile enough to change applications quickly, and perform tasks like people do. They’re a nice fit for many of the 90% of manufacturing tasks that can’t be practically or economically automated today.

What Does The Future Hold For Cobots?

As robots move from behind fixed cages to work cells alongside human workers—and as they move from heavy-duty industrial applications to providing assistance and augmenting skills—more and more companies will start seeing the benefits and get in the game. In other words, companies are discovering strategic reasons for acquiring and/or investing in robotics and robotic ventures to add to their products and services.

Don’t think the “big boys” of robotics, including Kuka, ABB, and FANUC aren’t taking notice of the huge opportunity potential of cobots and will begin to make major inroads.

Because the cobot market is relatively new, it’s probably too early in the evolution of co-bots for consolidation, but some systems will enjoy continued preference because of their cost, capability, flexibility/adaptability, ease of training, and support base.

Never thought you’d collaborate with a robot? Well, low-cost plug-and-play cobots might change your mind.

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