Walk around almost any automotive plant, and it’s difficult to miss the extensive use of industrial robotics. Nor is it difficult to see why. Vehicle model runs are measured in years; the parts being handled are heavy; the line is fast-paced—and for actions that are highly repetitive, but which must be performed accurately, robots are ideal.
But that’s certainly not true of every manufacturing business. Why not? Because in a lot of manufacturing businesses, batch sizes and order sizes are small, parts can be handled readily, and there’s a great deal of flexibility in TAKT times.
Throw in the availability of abundant low-cost labour in countries like China, and to many manufacturing businesses, offshoring has in recent years seemed like a better option than robotisation.
Strong growth of industrial robotics
No more. The tide is turning—and as low-cost economies themselves turn to robotisation as a strategy, ordinary manufacturing businesses here in Europe are taking a fresh look at what robotics can deliver.
According to the International Federation of Robotics’ annual 2015 World Robot Statistics, by 2018 global sales of industrial robots will on average be growing year-on-year by 15%, with the number of units sold doubling to around 400,000 units.
Do the maths, and it’s not difficult to see that the average robot sold is getting cheaper, and very probably smaller as well: forget those clunky robots of yesteryear.
And a growing proportion of robot sales are to manufacturing businesses in supposedly low-cost emerging economies: the five major markets for industrial robots, accounting for 70% of sales, are now China, Japan, USA, South Korea and Germany.
Smarter, and more flexible
For the typical manufacturing business here in the UK and Europe, the biggest impact is likely to arrive in the form of other characteristics from the current generation of industrial robots.
They’re smaller, yes. And they’re cheaper, yes. But most importantly, they’re also more flexible and nimble, with multi-axis arms. They are also much smarter—meaning that they can be programmed more quickly (helpful in short batch run environments), and can also teach themselves.
Roll all that together, and what you have is a robot that changes the paradigm of industrial robots. Cheaper, smaller, more flexible, smarter, and more easily programmed—these are robots that can genuinely work alongside people on the factory floor, without needing to be screened off behind safety barriers.
Enter the cobot
There’s a word for such robots: ‘cobots’, a shortened form of ‘collaborative robots’.
Here’s a definition, although not the only one in circulation:
“Collaborative robots are complex machines which work hand in hand with human beings. In a shared work process, they support and relieve the human operator.”
And cobots are starting to be seen in ordinary manufacturing businesses here in Western Europe, typically helping operators and cells engaged in repetitive assembly, often of customised-to-order or configured-to-order products.
Put another way, cobots are helping such manufacturing businesses to reshore work form low-cost economies such as China, by offering lower assembly costs, and short flexible supply chains that are closer to the customer.
What to do?
The key takeaway from this? There are two, actually.
First, if your manufacturing business has traditionally fought shy of the complexities of customised-to-order or configured-to-order products, it could be time to think again.
And second, technology is advancing fast. If cobots aren’t presently on your ‘things to track’ radar screen, it’s probably time to rectify that.