Year of the Cobot: Cobots make automating easier than ever

Collaborative robots (cobots) aren’t superheroes, but they are rescuing manufacturers of all sizes from the grip of a crippling labour shortage. Companies that once never considered robotic automation are now adopting cobots in their operations because today’s cobots are simple to operate and can handle a wide variety of previously impossible tasks.

Much has changed since IMTS 2018, where a handful of robot manufacturers each had one cobot in their booth. IMTS 2022 promises to be the year of the cobot, with many models and brands on display and in action throughout the show.

“Four years ago, cobots were still fairly new and were not well understood, but today they’re absolutely mainstream,” says Joe Campbell, senior manager of strategic marketing and application development at Universal Robots USA. “They’re the fastest growing segment in factory automation by far.”

Technological advances in ease of use and application flexibility have contributed to the growing popularity of cobots.

Ease of use
A cobot may seem intimidating to programme and operate, but in fact, many cobots today are designed with simplified operating and programming features that enable anyone in the shop to learn how to operate them. Cobots are easy to programme, with many using a touchscreen teach pendant that leverages icon-based drag and drop functions similar to those of smartphones or tablets.

“Each new generation of operators wants to interact with automation through more of a touchscreen-style interface, so we designed our cobots with this type of user in mind,” says Eric Potter, general manager of the general industries and automotive segment at Fanuc America.

Instead of requiring knowledge of programming languages, some cobots can be hand-guided through a programming path. While in teach mode, operators can grab the robot itself and manually position it through each stage of the process instead of programming it from an interface.

Once considered to be just a machine tending solution, cobots have evolved to take on jobs throughout the shop, such as assembly, inspection, welding and palletising. Cobots with higher payloads can handle heavier items, while some newer cobot models are mounted on mobile carts so users can quickly move them to different machines as needed.

A growing application is part inspection, a repetitive, sometimes boring task that still requires high precision. Smart vision accessories can easily integrate with cobots to assist in quality control and inspection operations.

“Given the ongoing challenge of meeting staffing needs in manufacturing, further exacerbated by the pandemic, cobots are perfect for the menial tasks so employees can be better used in higher value-add operations such as preparing or finishing parts or programming machines,” Potter adds.

For palletising operations, a cobot can be put at the end of a conveyor to load packaged parts on pallets for shipping. Cobots are also well suited for welding processes that require a high level of technical skill, complicated movements, or great dexterity, because they precisely lay a consistent weld bead and can move anywhere around the weldment.

Manufacturers considering a cobot can see the latest technology and speak one-on-one with cobot experts at IMTS 2022 to get the information they need to make an educated decision.

Cobots at IMTS 2022
New, easily programmable cobots specialising in inspection, palletizing, welding, and machine tending will be showcased at IMTS 2022. Visit the IMTS 2022 exhibitor page for a full list of collaborative robot exhibitors.

Fanuc America will introduce new additions to its family of cobots, the CRX series. These cobots are designed for small to mid-sized manufacturers considering automation for the first time, featuring advantages in ease of programming, set up, and overall flexibility.

Universal Robots USA will demonstrate cobots performing machine tending, machine loading and unloading, arc welding, plasma cutting, and surface finishing. These cobots will feature seamlessly integrated components, grippers, software, and safety accessories from the UR+ line of certified kits and components.

This is the viewpoint of Tim Shinbara who is Vice President and Chief Technology Officer for AMT – The Association For Manufacturing Technology