Collaborative Robots (cobots) have emerged to the centerstage in modernising the factory floor. Some myths and misconceptions have emerged, such as displacing human workers and safety risks. Which of the myths are real and which are pure misconceptions?
1. Cobots replace jobs
For ages, the message within manufacturing has been that robots steal jobs. However, it is not true in the case of cobots. Cobots actually relieve workers from strenuous and repetitive tasks so that they can take on better, more exciting roles within the company. With the cobots helping to increase productivity, companies often find themselves in a position to hire more people, thus creating jobs, not eliminating them.
According to OECD, only 14 percent of jobs can be fully automated. With cobots, the production rises 50% – without job losses. A World Economic Forum study suggests that by 2022, robots will create upwards of 133 million jobs globally, but no machine will ever replace human dexterity, critical thinking, decision-making, and creativity.
2. Robotics automation is for complex, large-scale operations
When most people think of robots, the image of a large, lumbering box used on assembly lines often comes to mind. The reality is, with the flexibility of cobots, companies can automate even the simplest of tasks. Regardless of the scale of output, cobots can be deployed for processes that are repetitive, manual, or potentially strenuous for workers – such as pick and place, packaging and palletising, screw driving, gluing, dispensing, and welding.
The BAI Lear Automotive System in Beijing specialises in the design and manufacturing of car seat systems, producing 1,500 sets of seats and tightening 6,000 screws a day. For a facility that has such high throughput, downtime is unacceptable. The company decided to search for an efficient and flexible automation solution that would reduce the time for workers to be acquainted with new equipment and reduce potential delays to production.
After an evaluation, BAI Lear deemed cobots would be more suitable than industrial robots, given the tight spaces in its workshops, the high costs of traditional industrial robots and their low flexibility to adapt to future needs. Eventually, BAI Lear deployed 38 Universal Robots (UR) cobots. The workers found the UR cobots easy to configure, user-friendly, cost effective, and reliable, greatly shortening the integration and commissioning cycle, and reducing deployment risks.
3. It’s a hassle to implement and maintain robots
It is true that some robots are large, cumbersome, and difficult to operate. One might say they practically require a PhD to run them. But not cobots. Cobots are easy to implement, operate, and maintain. Since cobots are so compact and lightweight, there is no need to change the production layout when switching the cobot between tasks. They are easily programmed or re-deployed and require minimal maintenance.
4. Cobots are dangerous
With traditional industrial robots, it is impossible to work with them side-by-side without some serious safety concerns. These traditional robots can handle heavier, larger materials and require safety cages to keep humans out of the workspaces.
Cobots are different from traditional industrial robots. They are created with safety in mind, reducing safety risks for workers. Specifically designed to work in conjunction with human workers, they perform best as a minimally disruptive solution to safety concerns. Given their built-in safety functions, cobots and individuals can work in tandem without needing cages (subject to assessment).
One company that relies heavily on the ability to work closely with cobots is PLC Industries in Singapore. PLC Industries places employee safety as a top priority, since workers need to work in close proximity of the robots. The company wanted to ensure that the robots were able to operate efficiently and safely within confined spaces. After extensive evaluation, PLC Industries determined that the Universal Robots’ UR10 cobots meet such requirements, with no need for safety guarding.
“Seeing my colleagues being totally at ease working alongside the robots is very encouraging. Being able to work without fear is a definite plus for all of us. The improved focus that everyone now posseses comes from lower fatigue and higher concentration levels. This significantly reduces the chance of an accident from occurring”, says Yeo Hock Lee, Engineering Manager, PLC Industries.
5. Cobots are costly
There is some truth to this myth – robots can be expensive. That is not true for every kind of robot. For cobots, upfront costs are typically cheaper than traditional robots, with an average payback period as short as twelve months. Cobots are cost-effective and their installation requires minimal investment, given they do not need major infrastructure changes. Unlike traditional robots, they can also be redeployed to different functions in the production line and used around-the-clock.
In the age of global challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic, trade wars, political turmoil, and more, companies need to reduce risks and profit in a sustainable and safe manner. Automation with humanity in mind is not just possible, but sustainable and safe, with the use of collaborative robots or cobots humming along with humans. The age of robots is here to stay, for the better of us all.