New Fronts in Automation being opened by Collaborative Robots

By putting automation within reach of many small and medium-sized companies for the first time, robots that work as assistants alongside people are set to upend the world of industrial robotics, industry players said this week.

Easy to use, inexpensive and safe to be around are the attributes of collaborative robots, or “cobots”. These robots are made well-suited to small-batch manufacturing and ever-shortening product cycles as they can easily be adapted to new tasks.

Cobots can be small enough to put on top of a workbench and can typically lift loads of up 10 kilograms (22 lb). Repetitive tasks like picking and placing, packaging or gluing and welding are best suited for cobots.

Such repetitiveness in cobots can be achieved by simply guiding it once through the process by a worker which is recorded by the cobot. While a typical cobot can costs around $20,000 to $30,000, some smaller cobots can even come for as little as $10,000.

Capital goods analysts at Barclays estimate that from $116 million last year, the global cobot market is set to grow to $11.5 billion by 2025. That would be roughly equal to the size of the entire industrial robotics market today.

“By 2020 it will be a game-changer,” said Stefan Lampa, head of robotics of Germany’s Kuka, during a panel discussion organized by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) at the Automatica trade fair in Munich.

Weighed by a sharp fall in top buyer China, the IFR said  that growth in industrial robot unit sales slowed to 12 percent last year from 29 percent in 2014.

Although sales are not yet significant, Japan’s Fanuc and Yaskawa, Swiss ABB and Kuka – all have collaborative robots on the market, all the three are the world’s top industrial robot makers.

Denmark’s Universal Robots which was acquired by U.S. automatic test equipment maker Teradyne for $285 million last year and a start-up that sold its first cobot in 2009, is the market leader and pioneer.

“We are approximately doubling every year, in terms of units. That’s our ambition and we have almost hit our ambition every year for six straight years,” co-founder Esben Ostergaard told Reuters in an interview.

At the time when the Danish ministry of food launched an initiative to get more robots into the Danish food industry to be more competitive, Ostergaard and his co-founders were already working on robotics at university together.

They realized that for the industry’s frequent seasonal product changes, the existing robots were not suitable.

“They could not readjust the robots. The whole machine weighed 500 kilos. It was very expensive. And most of all it was impossible to teach them how to program it,” Ostergaard said.

Interest is also growing from larger players.

Logistics giant DHL had ordered several of its Baxter and Sawyer smart cobots for testing in its warehouses on tasks such as packing and assembly, said U.S. competitor Rethink Robotics, another pure-play cobot maker. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is among the investors of the company.

(Adapted from Reuters)

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