Collaborative robots, or cobots as they are commonly known, have developed extremely fast and successfully. An emerging technology met with skepticism only a decade ago, today cobots represent the fastest growing segment of industrial robotics. Given the latest exciting trends in robotics research, their success is expected to grow.
From intelligent lift assist devices, built to lift weight in a safe way but without motion power of their own, to the emergence of the first cobots with vision integrated systems for obstacle avoidance, the field of collaborative robotics offers new opportunities to integrate automation in the smart factory.
This article will trace a brief history of collaborative robots and look into the most promising future developments in the industry.
A Bit of History
The first definition of cobot comes from a 1999 US patent filing for “an apparatus and method for direct physical integration between a person and a general-purpose manipulator controlled by a computer.” The description refers to what we would call today an Intelligent Assist Device (IAD), the ancestor of modern cobots, which resulted from the efforts of General Motors to implement robotics in the automotive sector. The new device could move in a non-caged environment to help humans in assembly operations, but for safety reasons it had no internal source of motion power.
In 2004, KUKA, a German-based robotics developer, released its LBR3, a lightweight cobot with motion power of its own. This was the result of a long collaboration between the company and the German Aerospace Centre Institute, and its motion control capabilities were later refined in two updated versions released in 2008 and 2013, respectively.
In 2008, Danish manufacturer Universal Robots released the UR5, a cobot that could safely operate alongside employees, eliminating the need for safety caging or fencing. The new robot helped launch the era of flexible, user-friendly and cost-efficient collaborative robots. These gave even small-to-medium-sized manufacturers the possibility to automate their facilities without investing in cost-prohibitive technology or in a complete makeover of their manufacturing plants.
Like all revolutionary technology, cobots were initially met with significant skepticism by the manufacturing industry. Many plant managers saw them as a technological marvel but questioned the possibility to integrate them in an actual working environment. Today, however, the market for industrial cobots has an annual growth rate of 50% and it is estimated that it will hit $3 billion in global revenue by 2020.
Trends and Forecasts
Though cobots are developing rapidly, there are still challenges preventing them from being applied to the vast majority of manufacturing plants. The most important ones are the need for fine dexterity—for example, when picking up small and delicate pieces—and the ability to make decisions rapidly to avoid obstacles without stopping production.
To address these challenges, industry leaders are developing cobots with faster processors and integrated vision systems. In this way, spatial data can be processed at the necessary speed to generate motion control in a way that conventional solutions relying on commodity hardware cannot match.
These innovations allow cobots to be much more productive. Unlike traditional solutions, which simply stop for safety reasons when they detect an obstacle, such as an operator’s arm, innovative cobots work their way around the obstacle to find the best path without stopping their action.
New cobots developed by Realtime Robotics, for example, have integrated vision systems that allow them to adapt to environmental changes. This includes obstacles of different nature and variation in the position of the object they are supposed to pick up and the location in which they must be dropped off.
This new technology not only eliminates the need for precise positioning, but also allows manufacturers to finally combine safety and maximum productivity. In fact, the new cobots will not just stop but will actively look for an open safe path to continue their operations. This increased sensitivity to obstacles will allow several cobots to work together independently, performing different tasks without ever colliding.
New generation cobots have combined the need for safety with the possibility to operate at full speed. Now that this compromise has finally been reached, there’s nothing holding collaborative robotics back. MH&L
Sophie Hand is country manager of EU Automation, a supplier of industrial automation parts.