Collaborative Revolution: Fears and Expectations
Before the 2010s, robotization and automation in the manufacturing industry were mainly through adopting industrial robots. Over the last eight years, the situation has changed in a big way. Indeed, a period of major transformations has come, known as Industry 4.0. Collaborative robots, or cobots, are its integral part.
People first started to talk about assistant robots in the mid-90s of the past century at the General Motors plants in the USA. The workers there had to manually install accumulators into produced vehicles.
One accumulator weighed 18 kg, and the hourly norm was to install 60 accumulators. Eight working hours a day, 200 working days a year—after a few years at such assembly lines, the workers’ medical expenses were soaring, just as the employers’ expenses for compensations. However, automation was impossible with the technologies that existed back then.
Testing of the collaborative robot at a General Motors plant
FYI: Industrial robots need to be enclosed in a special safety cell (protective fencing). When a human walks into such a cell, the robot stops. Those machines were worth several hundred thousand dollars and could take up the area of an average two-bedroom apartment. In addition, their mounting was impossible without an integrator.
The first collaborative robot (cobot) was patented in 1999 (the term “collaborative” emphasizes a peculiar feature of the new robot generation—the ability to work close to humans).
The first cobots, however, were unable to solve the problem of automation entirely. Controlled from a computer, the machines could hold a cargo, but the workers had to exert muscle power to make them move.
In 2008, the Danish “Universal Robots” company revolutionized robotics by releasing a collaborative robot—the way we know it today. It is a standalone machine that can work close to a human and is absolutely safe. The first UR5 model had the capacity of 5 kg, which was enough for most operations.
The new product became popular with small-size manufacturing enterprises that had assembly line production. Industrial solutions were too expensive for them, impaired mobility of the manufacturing process, and required significant manufacturing spaces.
The UR5 Universal collaborative robot
All at once, collaborative robotics won over a whole army of fans. Most mention the following major benefits of cobots:
- Affordability (from 20K USD)
- Reduced payback period and accelerated return on investments—from 6 to 12 months
- Minimum time from delivery to commissioning—1.5 hours
- Ease of programming (from hand guiding for those who know nothing about programming to an open API for professionals)
- Safety (the limit for the linear motion speed is set at 2 m/s; there are also various intelligent solutions that can stop a cobot when it contacts a human)
With the weight of only 15-20 kg and the height of about 1.5 m, the robots require no expensive commissioning works.
It’s been 10 years since the first robots appeared. Annually, the market of collaborative robotics grows at the rate of 50% and sales will are expected to amount to 1 mln. pieces annually by 2025.
The success of Universal Robots has launched a cobot fever. Within a few years, other major players, such as ABB, KUKA, Fanuc, Yaskawa, as well as younger companies—Kinova, Rethink Robotics, Franka Emika, presented their collaborative models, too. Rozum Robotics is the only cobot-manufacturer in the territory of former Soviet Union countries.
The KUKA collaborative robot
In 2016-2017, Western Europe (with Germany and Great Britain named as major consumers) was ranked as the key regional market for cobots. Asia and North America and Asia were in the second and the third positions accordingly.
In Asia, the market growth rates were the most significant ones. By 2018, Asia is expected to take the leading positions in terms of sales volume. Major applications are automotive industry and electronics. The most popular operations are pick-and-place and assembly.
Cobots with a national touch
Viktar Khamianok, the founder and the CEO of Rozum Robotics, shares the specifics of working with customers from Russia and Belarus:
“Unlike in Europe and America, major consumers in our countries are light (e.g., footwear manufacturing) and food industries (packing and stacking of finished products), as well as metal-cutting (servicing of machines, welding, cutting, painting). As a rule, those are enterprises numbering 10 to 1,000 people that aim specifically at increasing the quality and quantity of released products. A separate niche are prospective startups, where a robotic arm is only part of the process (e.g, a barista robot).”
There’s also a psychological aspect to buying a robot: end consumers and business partners are more sympathetic to those manufacturing enterprises that use robots to automate their process.
Evolution is inevitable. To stay competitive, companies have to constantly improve their products, increasing the added value.
The Industrial Revolution was a major turning point in the way people imagined the possibilities of industrial manufacturing. Fears of losing jobs to machines have proved to be groundless. The humankind is moving on. Recently, a number of professions have appeared that one could hardly believe possible before. All of them are related to modern technologies, in one way or another.
Companies from Russia and Belarus will also have to follow the path of automation and robotization. Major players are already in the game: Sberbank and PromoBot, robotic projects in Skolkovo, and the Innopolis technology cluster in Kazan.
The first businesses to “enter the river” will get maximum benefit. As they say, if you cannot stop a revolution, take the lead!