Human-machine harmony is the bedrock of an ideal industrial automation system on a manufacturing shop floor. Think of a typical robotics enabled shop floor and we visualise caged or fenced machines (read robots) working in sync with other machines and human beings. Now imagine robots working along with the human workforce on the same shop floor sans cages. Wouldn’t that lead to the same or higher levels of harmony and productivity? It would, if there is optimal utilisation of the factory space with no compromise on safety and of course, the fulfilment of target KPIs. This is where Cobots come in.
“Cobot” is short for “collaborative robots.” They conveniently share the workspace and can work ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with human workers. They are safe, efficient, and accurate, helping to improve the overall performance metrics of the tasks assigned by collaborating with a human worker to complete complex tasks.
Advent in the manufacturing world
Robots started manifesting, effectively, in the manufacturing world around five decades ago and have been steadily gaining attention globally. As per the International Federation of Robotics, while the global average robot density in manufacturing industries stands at 74 robot units per 10,000 employees, adoption in India has been slow, with a current density of just 3.
Introduced approximately 15 years back, Cobots have been developed to work safely and collaboratively with people unlike traditional industrial robots, which must be separated from human activity by safety fences or cages.
What differentiates a cobot from an industrial robot?
In-built safety features are what differentiate cobots from robots; industrial robots do not have innate safety features and hence need to be isolated from humans by safety fences, scanners, and other devices. Cobots on the other hand are equipped with power, force, speed and separation limiting functions that enable them to sense the presence of human body parts like hands and arms and slow down and stop accordingly.
Unlike traditional industrial robots, cobots are usually lighter, compact, easy-to-operate, easy-to-train, and can be turned mobile. Industrial robots have more sophisticated functions designed for complex applications and thus require specialist programming knowledge. Speed is another key differentiator. Industrial robots can perform high speed tasks. However, cobots generally have slower movements since they must take into account the possibility of human contact and thus must be able to come to an immediate stop.
Adoption trends and challenges in India
Bigger manufacturers like automotive, secondary packaging, FMCG, consumer electronics have made considerable progress in adopting both robots and cobots, however the path remains a little perplexing for micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs). They have a dire need for better levels for flexibility, quality and consistency, amidst challenges like limited scope of extension or modification of the shop floor space, shortage of skilled manpower, and meagre capital infusion capabilities.
Being in the robot space is considered one of the key indicators of being in-sync with Industry 4.0, so there is clearly no lack of intention and curiosity on their part; however the path is uphill as they grapple with these deterrents as well as the dilemma of choosing between a cobot and a traditional industrial robot.
Another hurdle for adoption of robots, especially in India, is the availability of a partner ecosystem. Most robot/cobot requirements are unique and need to be run like a small project. These require some mechanical additions or modifications on the customers’ existing setup. While larger organisations may be able to run some of these projects on their own, MSMEs usually do not have the required skill set to execute such projects. This is where the role of system integrators (SIs) comes into the picture. They marry the robot/cobot with the required mechanical design and implement it at customer locations. While India has many such SIs, we require a substantial increase in their number. Although, given the availability of technological skill-sets and an entrepreneurial mindset, it is only a matter of time before this ecosystem develops rapidly.
Application-Performance-Skills: Trade-off as the decision-making key!
A cobot is not an alternative for an industrial-bot and vice versa. Both come with their own applications defined by their own capabilities. Hence, the choice between a cobot and a robot needs to be made based on the application at hand and the work environment.
For example, a simple project which requires a small footprint and where the layout or workflow with human operator prevents incorporation of a fenced robot is an ideal situation for utilising a cobot. Typical examples would be palletisation, machine tending, glue dispensing, etc. Cobots have a versatile application and can be used across industries and size of operations – from MSMEs to large organizations.
On the other hand, tasks that can be performed in a space cordoned off from human intervention or ones which require either high-speed movements or stringent work environment and safety requirements are best suited for Industrial robots. Typical examples could be high-speed packaging of items like bottles and biscuits, welding and painting, etc.
Often, a cobot is more expensive than an industrial robot. And while industrial robots require more paraphernalia (like fencing, safety scanners, etc.) which add to the overall cost, most cobot applications also require interfacing of some safety devices to perform optimally. All the same, cobots are re-programmable and re-deployable. Hence, one needs to look at the total cost of implementation and not just the cost of devices.
Along with these checks, the maker also needs to gauge the skill-set of its employees. The employees or system integrators that play a key role in the final manifestation of the bot on the floor may not have enough skilled manpower or lucrative return on investments to dedicate their attention and resources to simpler tasks that need robotization. The possibilities of integrating them with more robots in the future (for example, mobile robots) to bring in more versatility, must also be considered.
This integration of human and machine capabilities is what will drive the industry of tomorrow, as advancing robotics technology offers more cost-effective and customizable options to businesses. The World Economic Forum (WEF) has highlighted how the percentage of workplace tasks performed by machines will rise to 42% by 2022, while humans will perform 58% of task hours – a substantial change from the current 71%. This evolution cannot be viewed as a simple transfer of job duties but rather as a transfer of skills. New developments in machine and associated software technology are creating more human jobs – as many as 58 million new jobs by 2022 as per WEF. The real value for industries lies in leveraging industrial robots and cobots for their direct benefit to productivity while strategically equipping human workers to work in tandem. This means both, upskilling workers to collaborate with robots better – from a productivity and safety perspective – and redirecting human talents to efficiency-oriented creativity and critical thinking by freeing up their time from easily automated tasks.
Ensuring a judicious and thorough trade-off forms a critical moot point for the makers while deciding to bring a robot into the workforce.
SCENARIO IN THE POST COVID ERA – TURNING ADVERSITY INTO OPPORTUNITY!
The manufacturers are now facing detailed guidelines to ensure the safety of their workers at the shop floors. The deployment of manpower while following the intricated social distancing rules is not an easy task and requires a smarter planning & balance as well as it adds to the cost. Cobots and AMRs (Autonomous Mobile Robots) can be of great utility in reducing the manpower density on the floor while at the same time bringing higher levels of efficiency. As elaborated above, Cobots don’t need fences for many applications and thus can work easily along with human beings. The fact that Cobots can be easily repositioned and can prepare themselves (by simply using a landmark) swiftly to start working on new machines, makes them ideal in a scenario where production variation is high and machine loads may not be predictable.
Similarly, AMRs can also work on the existing shop floor maneuvering through the existing arrangement as well as human traffic on the shop floor while moving loads. AMRs, especially in the material handling team bring on savings of precious resources owing to numerous useful features like self-mapping, self-navigation, fleet management, short and easy installation and no facility modification. AMRs can also be mounted with a cobot thus making it an extremely flexible and dexterous combination.
Moreover, to produce products which are expected to be consistent and high in quality, for increased output and decreased costs – robots are just the tip of the iceberg; they are a part of the whole end-to-end chain. Manufacturers, with prudent introduction & integration of other automation solutions along with robots, can achieve global standards in quality, consistency, reliability and hygiene.
Don’t just follow the trend; test the waters wisely!
With all these cost and time efficiencies and the wide-ranging benefits cobots and traditional industrial robots offer, the industries still need to test the waters wisely. There has been a considerable buzz around cobots and robotics, however lapping up something just because it’s in vogue cannot deliver results. The raison-d’etre and ultimate rationale of embracing robotics and a thorough estimation of the RoI – in terms of cost, productivity benefits, as well as creating a harmonious, symbiotic and long-term association between humans and machines – can provide a blueprint for adoption.