Flexible future

Cobots – future-proofing SMEs rather than killing jobs. By Peter Lange

As countries around the world work to ease lockdown restrictions, the reality of going back to work is calling for many industries to think about methods to ensure not only efficiency and productivity, but also safety. With measures being put in place to ensure social distancing regulations are maintained across Bild4 Collaborative Robot Application Semincondutorsbusinesses, the manufacturing industry is able to benefit from technology that currently exists – collaborative robots (cobots).

Product lifecycles are becoming shorter and demand continues to grow. Despite this, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) might be reluctant to invest in additional automation due to current uncertainty. However, cobots are easy to set up and offer a quick and cost-effective solution. They can increase the flexibility, quality and speed of production and enable companies to respond rapidly to changing market conditions.

Are robots likely to kill jobs or will they help to future-proof SMEs? Robots were first used in industrial manufacturing in the 1960s and since then, their number has increased inexorably Some 500,000 to 600,000 new robot systems are now becoming operational throughout the world each year.

In order for small and medium-sized production companies in the UK and Europe to maintain productivity and efficiency levels, and keep up with constant economic growth internationally, they need to invest more in automation for cost reasons alone. Times are changing and businesses need to think about how to invest now for a better standing in the future.

Cobots provide greater flexibility
However, classic industrial robotics won’t be the solution in many areas. This technology requires a high investment but isn’t sufficiently flexible for current and future needs. Traditional production lines are designed for manufacturing large numbers of products. However, product lifecycles are getting shorter. For example, in the 1970s, the average product lifecycle of a vehicle was eight years. Today, car models often get their first modifications after just two to three years. In almost all industries, the intervals between new product developments are shortening and many of them have to respond to new trends after a relatively short time. Production and automation must adapt to this scenario and cobots can help with this.

Cobots were first introduced in 2008 and represent a relatively new category of industrial robots. In contrast to traditional robots, which have to be shielded from the human workspace by a security fence, cobots were developed to work safely with people. Users also need less time and money to program an application with these ‘helper robots’. In addition, cobots can be easily moved from one location to another to work on different tasks, whereas conventional industrial robots have to stay in one location and can normally only be used for a specific task within the robot cell. Cobots therefore provide much greater flexibility. The diverse tasks they can handle vary from simple pick-and-place applications for parts handling, sorting and palletizing, through to machine assembly, order picking, packaging and testing. They can help to apply adhesive and sealants, assemble or disassemble parts, measure, test, check and take over screwing operations. This results in significant benefits for the employees, who no longer have to carry out monotonous, physically demanding or even dangerous work, but will receive support with precision work and can concentrate on their core abilities. Cobots are user-friendly and versatile
Today’s developed cobots are versatile and straightforward to operate. The different versions are suitable for practically any environment, such as the Bild5 cobot hand guideautomotive, semiconductor, food, packaging and cosmetics sectors. With flowchart-based programming, an intuitive HMI user interface and simple, hand-guided teaching functions, almost no previous knowledge of programming is required. Like a PowerPoint presentation, the user can assemble complete function blocks and fill the predefined attributes with the desired parameters. Now cobots have options that can include an integrated camera, vision- and a lighting system which enable them to precisely handle and trace items.

Many core functions (such as pattern, barcode and colour recognition) enable detection, inspection, measurement and sorting applications to be implemented easily and, if necessary, adapted to other requirements. With the help of positioning recognition facilities, the cobot is able to know where it is, and can be aligned with another machine, for example, without much effort or recalibration. It can even move autonomously and work wherever it’s needed.

From needs analysis to support
Investment should not only be based on the function of the cobot, but the support offered from the provider. Additional components (such as extra axes, grippers, force sensors, communication devices or screwdrivers) can be easily used by the cobots via plug-and-play system. With this in mind, ensuring your provider is a part of a partner network will allow you to benefit off of the ability to receive the necessary components. Another consideration is the level of support given when trying to understand how to use the cobot. Often businesses will have many unanswered queries. However, businesses can avoid confusion by choosing a provider that is able to undergo an analysis of the production task and the environment; evaluate the selection of the appropriate cobots and grippers or additional components; carry out risk analysis and assessments, and provide training and technical support. All of this makes it easier for SMEs to gain a foothold in the flexible manufacturing industry of the future.

Peter Lange is Business Development Manager Robotics at Omron Europe. OMRON Corporation is a global leader in the field of automation. The company's business fields cover a broad spectrum, ranging from industrial automation and electronic components to social infrastructure systems, healthcare, and environmental solutions. In the field of industrial automation, OMRON supports manufacturing innovation by providing advanced automation technology and products, as well as through extensive customer support, in order to help create a better society.


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