Humans and machines: Collaborative robots open a new automation frontier

January 16, 2017

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Cobots put robots alongside human workers, reduce up-front investments, and improve flexibility.

Automation in manufacturing is at a crossroads. Instead of focusing on removing humans completely from the manufacturing process, some companies are starting to see an opportunity for humans and robots to join forces. Enter “cobots” (short for collaborative robots). Cobots are cheap, lightweight, and easy to program. They also are designed to work alongside humans, and can be introduced into an existing manufacturing process without major transformation or expense.

A surprising benefit of cobots over the long term may be the opportunity they create to tap into innovation and creativity of workers on the manufacturing floor. This is conceptually similar to the total quality management (TQM) philosophy that is widely practiced by automotive companies and empowers employees on production lines to make suggestions for improvements based on their day-to-day knowledge. The twist, however, is that the robots will take on the repetitive tasks while humans take on the higher-level aspects. This is a very different scenario than the one often top of mind: robots as a threat that will take away human jobs.

When automation brings bottom-up improvements

After all, people who are experts at their jobs are in the best position to come up with new ideas about how to improve manufacturing processes. If robots can relieve these employees of mundane, repetitive (but still necessary) tasks, the human experts are then free to focus on activities that will ultimately create greater value by helping streamline and otherwise improve processes—and the end product. In this way, automation changes from a top-down activity carried out by management to a bottom-up activity that engages workers and makes the best use of their experience and expertise.

Up until recently, the benefits of automation in manufacturing have been limited in part because no one had worked out an elegant way to allow humans and robots to work together. So businesses pursued automation in one of two ways: lights-out automation and robot-centric automation. In the first approach they completely eliminate humans from the process. Manufacturing operations can go on unsupervised for weeks at a time without light (or heating and air-conditioning) because there are no humans in the facility. For example, FANUC’s lights out manufacturing facility produces 22,000 to 23,000 computer numeric control machines per month.

In the robot-centric approach, automation limits the interaction between humans and robots by placing robots in cages or behind other barriers and implementing protocols to mediate how and when people can enter a robot workspace. Having humans working around very large, heavy, fast-moving robots can put people at greater risk for injury, which all businesses want to avoid. (In the United States alone, on-the-job injuries cost businesses over $62 billion a year in direct workers’ compensation costs.)

Both of these approaches to automation are expensive and require considerable upfront investment—as well as skilled talent to program the robots to do their jobs, which limits automation’s business benefits. These automation approaches only make sense for large manufacturers that produce goods in high volume. These companies must also have the ability to absorb the upfront investment, train the necessary talent, and be comfortable with their return on investment taking longer to materialize.



When robots and humans are better together

The human-centric cobot approach puts robots alongside human workers. After all, there are many situations in manufacturing, assembly, packaging, and other functions in which human work will always be necessary. Robots can’t do everything, which is part of the reason why so much manufacturing gets outsourced to regions of the world where labor is cheaper. Moreover, in many manufacturing processes, it may only be a small portion of the task that robots can do well. In those cases using cobots and people in the same workspace may achieve the best results.

Cobots are designed to be safe around humans. Some are built on technology that allows them to be aware of their surroundings, so if a human comes close to them they either slow down or stop. They are lightweight and are also force-limited, so if they come in contact with a human they only transfer a small amount of force that will not cause injury. Other cobots are also wrapped in soft padding to cushion any potential contact.

Cobots are also cheaper and easier to “teach,” so they do not require a large upfront investment. They are also flexible and can be moved from one task to another easily. Cobots are available from emerging and established robotics vendors such as Rethink Robotics, Universal Robots (acquired by Teradyne), Kuka, FANUC, Kawada, Gomtec (acquired by ABB) and others. Many small and medium businesses that could not afford the more expensive industrial robots can consider cobots for a range of automation applications.

Consider Trelleborg Sealing solutions, an O-ring, gaskets and seals manufacturer in Sweden that introduced cobots into its existing operations without changing the space requirements or building safety barriers. With cobots, Trelleborg is able to optimize production, improve product quality, and make the product at a more competitive price. The cobots’ ability to operate safely alongside workers was an essential capability to spur adoption. The flexibility of the cobot to be easily programmed for low volume and high volume runs was an additional benefit as well.

How are you applying automation that mixes human work and robot work?

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Chris Curran

Principal and Chief Technologist, PwC US Tel: +1 (214) 754 5055 Email

Vicki Huff Eckert

Global New Business & Innovation Leader Tel: +1 (650) 387 4956 Email

Mark McCaffery

US Technology, Media and Telecommunications (TMT) Leader Tel: +1 (408) 817 4199 Email