We humans are not going away

From all of us here at Metalworking News, Happy New Year! As we anticipate a year full of growth and opportunities for the metalworking industry, be inspired by the latest issue of the Metalworking News magazine featuring local and international articles on new ideas, trends and new products.

Of particular interest are the reports on the JIMTOF 2022 exhibition in Japan, which I attended in November last year, and the EuroBLECH 2022 exhibition that took place in Germany just before the Japanese exhibition. What is very evident from these two exhibitions is that Covid was still having an influence on visitor attendance – numbers were down at both exhibitions – but those that did attend were excited to have the opportunity of personal contact and get back to networking again. There is nothing like face-to-face meetings and viewing products in a working situation, with your own eyes.

I do have an introduction to my JIMTOF report, which confirms this, where I say: “They say seeing is believing or go and do the Gemba walk and Genchi Genbutsu – go see for yourself.” This is true for most aspects in life and we have to start seeing past the fears of Covid and stop relying on the Internet of Things all the time. We all understand that manufacturing has been moving towards the ‘Industrial Internet’ to build digital smart factories that can connect, communicate, and use smart data in real time to optimise operations. It makes us super-efficient, productive and we cannot do without it.

However, if I had not visited JIMTOF 2022 I would not have seen or heard about the latest trends in our industry. In particular I am referring to collaborative and industrial robots. They were ‘in your face’ wherever you went in the exhibition. Their use – robots – has been on the rise in recent years.

Cobots (collaborative robots) were designed to be lightweight and easy to use, but today’s cobots are also powerful industrial tools that can be integrated with existing machinery and other robots through PLCs and sophisticated programming software. Cobots are bringing automation to the small and mid-sized manufacturers around the world. Since collaborative robots burst on the scene a decade ago, they’ve made automation accessible and affordable for many organisations for whom traditional robotics were out of reach.

Almost any robot can claim to be collaborative with the appropriate safety mechanisms in place. But cobots are the only robots that were designed specifically to work alongside humans, and that also provide the versatility, user-friendliness, small footprint and affordability that help define collaborative robotics.

But automating appropriately means evaluating your specific situation to make the best choice. The industry is changing rapidly and new robotic capabilities are blurring the lines between collaborative and industrial robots. At the same time, standards organisations are creating guidelines to keep workers safe as they interact with robots in a wide range of applications and environments.

Every automated application where humans are present requires a risk assessment and that includes cobots. Based on the assessment, a collaborative application may still require safety mechanisms such as light curtains, safety mats, or reduced robot speed. But cobots are designed to be used within a collaborative workspace and have built-in safety mechanisms to support this use.

Cobots do not replace workers, they staff the repetitive tasks companies simply can’t fill. With cobots, manufacturers can reduce the number of human workers required for monotonous or injury-prone tasks and redeploy them into higher-value jobs. Often, the arrival of cobots significantly boosts manufacturers’ global competitiveness, enabling them to outbid competitors in low-wage countries, reshore work, and hire more people locally.

However, behind every cobot is the software that gets it to operate and that software is designed and programmed by a human. We are not going away!