Robots or cobots? EU Automation discusses what manufacturers should consider when choosing a robot
6 August 2019
In 2011, students at Czech Technical University built a robot capable of juggling. Using ring-shaped hands and a basket to relaunch any failed catches, the robot could juggle up to an impressive five pool balls at once. In the years since then developers and researchers have designed robots for almost every application. Here Jonathan Wilkins (pictured), director of industrial automation parts supplier, EU Automation discusses what manufacturers should consider when choosing a robot.
Across industry, manufacturers have installed robots in facilities worldwide to improve productivity, accuracy and safety on their assembly lines. The International Federation of Robotics predicts that by 2019, more than 1.4 million new industrial robots will be installed in factories worldwide.
Though they aren’t typically used for juggling, manufacturers can program industrial robots to perform a range of tasks, usually those that are dangerous, dirty or repetitive. Manufacturers can choose from a range of models that differ in payload capacity, number of axes of travel and speed.
Enter the cobot
One significant development in industrial robotics happened in the 1990s, when collaborative robots, or cobots for short, were developed to work alongside humans. In comparison to non-collaborative robots, cobots are lighter and are equipped with safety features to slow or stop themselves when close to humans.
Industrial robots vary in size, flexibility and affordability. Manufacturers need to consider what type of machine will best improve productivity for the application required, whether this is a traditional industrial robot or a cobot.
When investing in new automation equipment, one of the plant manager’s first thoughts should be safety. For a robot to be classified as safe, manufacturers should carry out a risk assessment to determine if a human can work alongside the machine and define any additional safety measures needed.
Traditional industrial robots are difficult and expensive to reprogram, so are best used in facilities that manufacture one product on each assembly line. Manufacturers will also find that these robots are heavier and larger than cobots, which means it is difficult to change where they are in the production line.
In contrast, cobots are designed to be flexible. Robots designed to work around humans are usually more lightweight and can be easily placed anywhere on the assembly line where an operator requires assistance.
Manufacturers can also easily program and reprogram cobots to complete different tasks and change the end-of-arm tooling to adapt cobot function.
Manufacturers should also base their decision on production speed and volume. An assembly line of humans and cobots should be run at the speed of a human operator to reduce bottlenecks.
Manufacturers that require a higher production volume can benefit from purchasing non-collaborative robots. Fewer human operators can allow production to run faster.
As well as this, industrial standards dictate that robots used in collaborative applications must have certain safety features, such as slowing or stopping when a human operator is close. This increases safety for human workers but means that the machine may stop multiple times a day, reducing the rate of production. This may not be suitable in some applications, for example in a food or pharmaceutical plant that must be tightly regulated.
Robots are also at risk of stopping if they are not correctly maintained. Manufacturers can prevent production downtime by incorporating predictive maintenance into their processes from day one. Developing a relationship with a reliable supplier of automation equipment, like EU Automation, can cover manufacturers in the event of an industrial robot failure, whether it is a cobot or not.
When deciding between a non-collaborative robot and a cobot, manufacturers should consider how the machine will be used. One way to determine this is by looking at the end-of-arm tooling on the robot.
End-of-arm tooling can be changed according to the task being completed. For example, manufacturers can use grippers for materials handling, blades for cutting or welding devices for welding metal products.
Manufacturers operating a robot for cutting or welding should consider investing in a non-collaborative robot. Humans cannot safely work around robots holding dangerous tools, so it is best to purchase a robot that can be caged off from workers in these instances.
If the manufacturer wants a pick-and-place robot that handles products using a gripper, they could purchase a collaborative robot. Manufacturers can use the robot to help humans complete intricate tasks without compromising on safety.
The simplest way to choose between a non-collaborative and cobot is to look at the application the manufacturer plans to automate. Manufacturers may believe that because of their popularity, cobots are a long-term investment that will improve productivity, but this is not true for every application. Smaller manufacturers that want to take the first steps to automate the facility may benefit from cobots but need to consider scalability in the future.
The number of robots available to purchase is vast. Though you probably aren’t looking for a robot to juggle in your facility, it’s important to consider the flexibility, speed and safety of a robot before making a purchase.
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