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What is a Cobot? A Guide to Collaborative Robots

Updated: Nov 4, 2021

What exactly are cobots and what can they do for CNC machining and other manufacturing? Our guide answers all your questions.

OB7 cobot tending a CNC machine

Origin of Cobots

Robots trace their origins to the 1950s when George Devol patented the first known “industrial robot”, Unimate, that introduced automation into factories. By the 1960s, General Motors was adding robots to its facilities for welding, and soon other large manufacturers followed suit.

While these robots were powerful and fast, they were also massive, expensive, and unsafe around humans. They operated in cages, behind fences, or in separate rooms entirely. They were also “fixed” automation, meaning they were designed and built for a single task. If the task was no longer needed due to production or process changes, the robot became obsolete.

By the late 1990s, the first true collaborative robots, or cobots, were being developed by J. Edward Colgate and Michael Peshkin. These were designed to be safe, work closely with humans, and take on repetitive tasks that would make people’s jobs easier.

Today, cobots are gaining popularity in manufacturing and other industries to package goods, tend machines, replenish products, or work in assembly lines. By working alongside humans, cobots provide safe collaboration as well as improved product quality through consistency and precision. In this blog, we’ll look at the many benefits of cobots and what sets cobots apart from traditional industrial robots.

What is the Difference Between Robots and Collaborative Robots?

There are several differences between traditional robots and collaborative robots, or cobots. Cobots are smaller, more affordable, and easier to operate. The main difference though, is that collaborative robots are designed to share workspaces with humans safely and don’t require caging or fencing. They are equipped with safety features that make them far less hazardous than traditional robots.

Cobots are also generally easier to program than traditional robots. However, cobots vary in their ease-of-use. The latest generation of cobots, like Productive Robotics’ OB7, offer no programming at all. They learn to perform their tasks through physical teaching: by showing and guiding it through the motions, instead of using traditional robot coding or programming.

Another key difference is the fact that cobots provide flexibility and agility. Instead of being designed, built, and programmed for a single task or application, cobots can perform a wide variety of tasks and can be redeployed to multiple workstations. For example, a cobot can assemble products at the beginning of the day and package those same products at the end of the day. Similarly, a cobot can tend multiple machines and easily roll between them.

Cobots are Designed for Human Interaction

Learn what impact cobots have on employees! Watch now.

Cobots have built-in safety features that enable them to work alongside humans safely without the need for caging or fencing. This means that a cobot can stop or slow down if a person bumps into it or enters its working area. There are four different collaborative robot modes for human interaction:

  1. Safety-rated monitored stop

  2. Hand guiding

  3. Speed and separation monitoring

  4. Power and force limiting

Cobots have other features that are designed for close human interaction:

  • Compact size/small footprint (plus the ability to be mounted to ceilings, tables or carts).

  • Lightweight robot arms with rounded edges to minimize force of injury.

  • Sensors to automatically stop or slow down motion.

  • Hand-like grippers and other dexterous options for many applications.

It is important to note that cobot safety features alone do not make a cobot safe. It is always necessary to perform a proper risk assessment to determine the safety of the application and the people involved.

Impacts on Employees and Job Responsibilities

Cobot tending to parts in a CNC machine

By sharing workspaces with humans, cobots work alongside workers to alleviate them from repetitive, redundant work. Cobots take on the dull, dirty, and dangerous tasks and allow workers to focus on other higher skilled tasks that provide more value to the organization.

For example, a cobot can tend a CNC machine by handling the repetitive process of loading and unloading parts, while the operator focuses on quality inspection and preparing different jobs. This not only boosts throughput by keeping machines running consistently, but makes work more interesting, challenging, and more fulfilling, and may even lead to new responsibilities.

  • Work and Task Flexibility with Cobots

Cobots arms are built with multiple degrees of motion. Most cobots have six degrees of freedom, but OB7 from Productive Robotics has seven, which provides more flexibility and dexterity to reach around obstacles and get into tighter places. Cobots provide the flexibility to move in-between machines and easily change from one job to another. They can be equipped with many gripper options, so they can work dexterously with a variety of materials and not cause damage. This flexibility combined with ease-of-use allows you to easily implement cobots and teach it a task in minutes.

Watch how you can set up a cobot and teach it CNC machine tending:

  • Evolving Work with Robotics

The manufacturing industry’s labor shortage makes it difficult to find skilled workers. With many manufacturing jobs left unfilled, cobots are filling the need for businesses to optimize their production by automating jobs that are mundane, boring, or undesirable. Cobots give manufacturers a competitive advantage through their cost-effectiveness, ease-of-use, and implementation.

Because cobots don’t take breaks, get sick, or go on vacation, they run unattended for entire shifts and continue after everyone goes home for the night. This opens up the possibility for "lights-out" manufacturing during off-hours and the ability to take on even more work. Just imagine having your operators focus on innovative or complex tasks while cobots handle the more redundant work with minimal oversight!

What are Collaborative Robots used for?

Due to their versatility, small footprint, and ease of use, cobots can automate thousands of different industrial tasks ranging from packaging and assembly to machine tending and quality inspection. Common cobot tasks include:

  • Assembly

  • Laser Cutting

  • Screw Driving

  • Bagging

  • Machine Tending

  • Sealing

  • Deburring

  • Material Handling

  • Sorting

  • Dispensing

  • Packaging

  • Spraying

  • Finishing

  • Painting

  • Welding

  • Gluing

  • Palletizing

  • Work Assistant

  • Inspection

  • Pick & Place

  • Lab Testing

  • Quality Inspection

Identifying cobot applications is different for every business. Since robots do not perform tasks the same way humans do, it’s helpful to break down existing processes into short, repeatable steps that a robot can handle. A good rule of thumb is to start with a simple task and then expand to more complex applications. You can identify processes that are suitable for cobots by focusing on those that:

  • Have repetitive movements

  • Require very little or no skill

  • Are prone to errors or distraction from fatigue

  • Contribute to idle machine time

  • Require high precision

Types of Cobots

There are many different collaborative robots on the market today, each offering similar benefits and their own specialties. Determining the right cobot for your application depends on several factors that are unique to your business and the specific application. Typically, cobots can be differentiated by the following:

  • Payload. How much weight they can lift and move, including tooling.

  • Reach capacity. How far the arm can extend and maintain stability.

  • Axis of movement. The number of lines/planes around which a joint rotates.

  • Teachability. How they are set up to do work (i.e. teachable vs. needing programming skills)

  • End of arm tooling. Such as multiple-finger grippers, calipers, and vacuum cups.

  • On-board safety features. Such as sensors, cameras, and variable speed settings.

Common Cobot Applications

The above features translate into many specific industrial applications, like:

  • CNC Machining

Cobots are widely used in CNC machine tending. A cobot loads and unloads a machine like a human operator, but it doesn’t take breaks. A cobot from Productive Robotics takes a few hours to set up and easily connects to any type of machine. Cobots keeps CNC machines running 24/7 "lights out", eliminating idle spindle time and increasing throughput.

  • Manufacturing

Opportunities for improving manufacturing operations and productivity with cobot integration are almost endless. A cobot handles many tasks that increase quality and enhance efficiency, such as:

  • Placing parts into a heat treating furnace or sheet metal forming machine

  • Drilling holes, tapping sheet metal, or driving screws

  • Finishing tasks like grinding, polishing, or deburring

  • Laser or plasma cutting

  • Welding

  • Post CNC machining quality inspection (with the aid of a 3D camera or sensor)

  • Logistics

From manufacturers shipping out finished parts to organizations exclusively involved in warehousing and logistics, cobots can be used for tasks like packaging (e.g. filling cases or palletizing), lifting, stacking, pick-and-place operations, and sorting.

Industries that Benefit from Cobots

OB7 Cobot

Businesses large and small and across all industries benefit from cobots. Machining/fabrication and other processes that require consistent, repeatable steps are perfect candidates for cobot automation. Because cobots work consistently, nonstop, they complete tasks the same each time. This leads to a reduction in human error, improved quality/safety requirements, and greater employee satisfaction. OEMs and suppliers can also achieve lower rates of scrap or rework.

  • CNC Machining and Precision Manufacturing

In CNC machining applications, cobots handle the loading and unloading process, including:

  • Opening and closing the machine door

  • Pressing the start button

  • Loading and unloading blanks or parts

  • Staging material for processing and inspection

  • Recording pertinent data

Further, in CNC machine operations, focusing on increasing throughput is the key. Whereas an operator tending a machine is rarely present to change the part when the cycle ends, a cobot keeps machines running consistently and eliminates idle machine time. Cobots also work well for short machining cycles by working continually on jobs, relieving an operator of this task, and allowing them to focus on other tasks.

The number of axes of motion can also determine the flexibility that a cobot has to reach round objects, pick them up and rotate them, grasp and turn knobs, push buttons, and more. Productive Robotics’ OB7 cobot has seven joints, which is an advantage for CNC machine tending. Because of the 7th axis, the cobot can be placed to the side of the machine door and reach around into the machine to load the part without blocking access for the machine operator.

  • Metal Fabrication

Cobots can be equipped with grippers or vacuum suction cups to pick up, move, and load blanks or sheet metal for many fabrication operations, including stamping, laser cutting, punching, shearing, bending, folding, and casting. They can also assist with secondary operations for finishing or heat treatment.

  • Aerospace and Automotive

OEMs and suppliers demand consistent part quality that meets specifications. In these manufacturing environments, cobots can machine components, drill and screw panels, and input raw materials for stamping small and miniature components – all without tiring, straining, or taking a break.

Advantages of Working with Cobots

There are several advantages to implementing cobots into your facility in terms of increasing efficiency and productivity. Their advantages are numerous, and the following are some of the biggest.

Easy Programming and Set-up

Cobot with suction cups tending a laser cutting machine

Many adopters of cobots are first time users and do not have any prior robot programming experience. Thus, what makes a cobot simple and easy to work with is how easy it is to program it. Cobots, like OB7, require no programming at all. Rather than inputting lines of code, anyone can teach OB7 by simply by moving the arm through the motions. By “showing” it where to move, those motions are stored and followed exactly each and every cycle.

Cobots are Collaborative and Safe

Introducing cobots into your facility provides an enhanced safe working environment between human and robot collaboration. Cobots work alongside your existing employees to assist with tasks. By working collaboratively with humans, cobots increase productivity, efficiency, and quality, while enriching the work environment.

ROI and Fast Payback Periods

Return on investment (ROI) is fast for cobots because they are easy to set up, require minimal integration, and are more cost-effective than traditional cobots. Some cobots, like Productive Robotics’ OB7, have an ROI in as little as a week with financing. There are many other factors that play a role in determining ROI. Every business is different, so it’s important to assess the factors involved in your business when calculating your ROI.

Positive Impact on Employees

Introducing a new piece of equipment, like a cobot, can be intimidating for workers. Yet, the initial reaction quickly dissipates as the cobot frees them up to handle more rewarding parts of their job. In many cases, employees finally have time to get caught up and work on higher-level responsibilities and training. In other cases, they even come up with new and creative ways that a cobot can help with their job.

Improving Automation with Cobots

For decades, automation has benefited large companies. Today, businesses large and small can implement collaborative robots without the high price tag, complex integration and difficult programming. Through their ease-of-use, affordability, and flexibility, cobots offer limitless options for businesses to compete in a changing manufacturing landscape.

Whether it is a fully automated factory floor or introducing cobots into manual workstations, cobots provide many benefits to businesses across all industries. They increase productivity, improve quality, and optimize efficiency.

Productive Robotics focuses on usability and providing solutions to non-experienced individuals who have no robotics experience or programming skills. OB7 cobots are designed to seamlessly integrate into production lines, teach easily, and redeploy quickly.

Contact Productive Robotics Today

Our robot specialists at Productive Robotics are here to answer your questions. Please get in touch to learn about our next generation of cobots and how they can help you achieve your production goals.

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