Industry 4.0 is all about automation, and robots play a very important role in automation. Especially in these troubled times due to COVID, robots are all set to play an important role in safeguarding human lives.
Robots can be defined as a system that contains sensors, control systems, manipulators, power supplies and software all working together to perform a task. Since robots work tirelessly, are not susceptible to contamination (very important in the context of the present COVID pandemic), are efficient and accurate consistently, they improve productivity, at the same time mitigating risk to human workers. A few sectors that understood the utility of robots include automobile, aerospace sector, healthcare, education and defence. The assembly line, which is the heart of the automobile manufacturing process, was one of the very first sectors to adopt industrial robots to speed up their assembly line.
‘Cobots’ is a short form for collaborative robots and defines a subset of industrial robots that work in collaboration with their human counterparts. In general, cobots are lighter and smaller than the bulkier industrial robots. They are easy-to-use, flexible, application-specific tools and simpler to program than the industrial robots. Since they are designed to work in collaboration with humans, they include a special layer of security that allows them to work in the same work space as their co-workers. Cobots find an increased use in many industries – right from food processing to manufacturing and from pharma to retail. As a concrete example, a car assembly line finds cobots useful in assembling the inside components of the car, where humans fit the plastic components and the cobot affixes them almost instantaneously. Another example where cobots are useful is in moving things in a warehouse. Like industrial robots, cobots can leverage artificial intelligence and machine learning to optimize tasks and plan the most efficient picking routes in real-time, eliminating unnecessary walking in the warehouse aisles. Collaborative robots can assure quality by inspecting finished parts by comparing images against CAD models. In restaurants, they can even flip burgers. Good software programming allows collaborative robots to understand its boundaries and operational space as well as move safely by restricting its speed. This is essential and mandated by organizations like the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), International Standards Organization (ISO), and the Robotics Industries Association (RIA) in order to ensure human safety. Software companies are also experimenting with Artificial Intelligence (AI) in order to properly 'train' cobots, for example to understand the difference between picking up a inflated balloon vis a vis picking a hard rock. Another instance where AI programming helps cobots is in sensing proximity of humans and restricting its motion accordingly.
Advantages of Cobots
All robots – industrial or collaborative – are geared to handle repetitive tasks. In fact, one of the most important USP of robots is that they can work relentlessly and with the same efficiency 24 / 7. Humans, on the other hand, get tired after a few hours of work. More so, if the task is repetitive. This is where cobots play an important role. If the person continues to do tasks that require cognitive abilities while leaving the repetitive tasks to the cobot, it increases the overall output by speeding up the manufacturing process. Unlike most of the huge industrial robots, cobots do not require a separate workspace; they share it with the human workers. Even though collaborative robots are lightweight, they share all the properties of bigger robots. This means that they are fully compatible with the tenets of Industry 4.0, and can be part of the industrial internet of things (IIoT). Just like robots, cobots too can send Big Data to a platform like PTC ThingWorx for real time analysis and modelling.
One of the most important advantage of a cobot is that they are easy to program. Most cobots can be programmed with almost none or little coding experience. Since they are less complex than industrial robots, they save on money too. This makes them affordable to small and medium enterprises (SMEs).
There are four main types of cobots:
A safety monitored stop is the most basic type of cobot, wherein a robot and a human work alongside one another in the same workspace, but do not directly interact with each other. When a human worker comes near them, these cobots stop their work. Power and force limiting robots are specifically designed to allow for direct interaction with human workers without the need for additional safety barriers. They are generally, built without any sharp protrusions or edges as they are meant to work alongside humans without any additional safety.
Hand Guiding collaborative robots have a safety sensor attached to the end of the robot arm. This device allows a person to manually guide the robot around. An operator directly controls the motion of the robot during automatic mode. While in automatic mode, the robot performing hand-guiding collaboration responds only to the operator's direct control input. Hand guidance is often used to quickly and easily program new robot paths and positions by hand. It’s very advantageous where re-training is required to accomplish different tasks, and when the cobot needs to be reprogrammed frequently for a new job.
Speed and separation cobots are designed and programmed to operate where there is minimal interaction with a person, but can be accessed quickly. They work like standard industrial robots; the difference is that the speed and separation cobots are better suited for applications that will have frequent interaction with human workers. If a worker comes in the vicinity of these cobots, they slow their speed. However, as soon as the worker moves away, they resume their speed. They are programmed in such a way that they stop working altogether when a human worker comes in close vicinity.
There is a perceptible increase in demand for automation, especially in the field of automobile sector, material handling and aerospace segment. The robots and collaborative robots market is pegged to grow at an astounding compound annual growth rate in excess of 40%. It is projected to reach a staggering Rs. 5896 crores (about $ USD 7,972 million) by the year 2026. [source: https://www.marketsandmarkets.com/Market-Reports/collaborative-robot-market-194541294.html ] As programming robots and cobots becomes simpler, thanks to efficient software like that from Altair, and more and more industries take to AI / AR / VR to sustain their growth, their role in Industry 4.0 and IIoT is only set to increase. According to one research report, the market demand for robots and cobots is going to be dominated by Asia in the next few years, and includes countries like India, Singapore, Malaysia, and other countries. In addition, cobots are classic Industry 4.0 products in that they are digital products that continue evolving through software updates and their own programmability.