As technology develops faster than ever before, many industries are completely changing their previously long-standing practices. One such industry is manufacturing, with automation already dominating the field. According to Forbes, the resulting ripples from the COVID-19 pandemic have inexplicably changed the way businesses and factories are run. It has forced them to eliminate manual processes and efficiently streamline workflows, especially through the use of industrial robots and collaborative robots.
As the name suggests, collaborative robots – otherwise known as cobots – are designed to work alongside human employees. As such, they are often smaller and are equipped with sensors and other safety protocols so they will not hurt humans nearby. The use of these robots has seen a serious spike – 2020 saw the cobot market valued at $981 million and it is expected to hit $7,172 billion by 2026. With their compactness, flexibility, and manageable costs, there is no surprise cobots are being adopted by small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to automate their production line.
A cobot’s versatility is why they can find employment in a wide array of industries. Let us take a look at a few of them below:
Agriculture and Farming
Robots and artificial intelligence (AI) are increasingly being used in the agricultural industry today. Some non-agriculturally intensive countries are looking at utilizing cobots as a way to boost production and stave off food security concerns. Examples include machine learning in farming to predict harvests and inspect crops. Cobots have also been utilized to make harvesting easier for farmers. Although they still have certain limitations, cobots are now being fitted with heat sensors and thermal cameras to help with tasks. These can include picking crops like strawberries and lettuce, assisting with pollination, or milking animals. For example, in the dairy industry, using cobots helps to decrease the work expense of milking cows, as well as address the issue of a deficiency in long-term milkers. Cobots can automate the process of sanitizing the cows before and after being milked without harming the animal and prevent workers from having to sit or stand for long periods.
Unlike their larger, more intensive counterpart, cobots help assuage farmers’ fears that technology will interfere and disrupt the production process. This is because industrial robots take up more space, can injure both humans and animals, and are harder to fix when sudden malfunctions occur. Whereas the lighter and more compact cobots are safer, less complicated to manage, and adaptable to different tasks.
Food and Beverage
Surprisingly, automation in the food industry has risen in recent years. There are several factors resulting in this trend, such as stricter food safety, worker safety, increasing demand for food, and the need to boost productivity while keeping costs down. In the past, the food and beverage industry did not see much automation when compared to metal, electronics, and automotive. This was because food products were difficult for robots to handle delicately and hygienically. In addition, most products did not have standardized shapes, making it hard to program robots to recognize them. However, developing technology has changed how the industry is traditionally run. For example, a cobot’s robot arm can be outfitted with soft grippers that mimic human touch, while vision technology can easily identify the correct object. As of now, around 90% of F and B businesses rely on some form of robotics to manage their production lines, and robots are sophisticated enough to sort delicate and irregularly shaped foods without damaging them.
Ultimately, cobots are more affordable and cost-effective when compared to heavy industry robots. They can handle repetitive tasks such as packaging, scanning, and moving items. Cobots are also used to protect workers from doing dangerous tasks or operating in hazardous areas. For example, meat needs to be stored in frigid environments to stop spoilage, but cold temperatures can negatively affect human employees’ health. As such, cobots and robots which do not risk getting hurt and are not affected by severe temperatures, are better suited to these tasks.
Healthcare and Pharmaceutical
The healthcare and pharmaceutical industry often has to work with producing huge quantities of goods with little margin for error. Some essential tasks are often repetitive and simple, such as dispensing pipettes or packaging medicine. Other tasks require sterile handling. Therefore, robotics and robot technology have a long history of success in this industry. As of now, cobots have already proven themselves useful when it comes to administrative tasks, aiding in surgeries, or sorting samples in labs. For example, during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, cobots were used in some hospitals to help disinfect beds and rooms before allowing employees to step inside. This allowed the hospital to protect its staff members from unnecessary exposure to the virus.
Due to their collaborative nature, cobots greatly aid in assisting surgeons, attending doctors, and patients. Their precise movements allow for less invasive surgical procedures, higher success rates, and shorter hospital stays. Cobots are also being used for in-patient monitoring, helping to present a patient’s vitals and history. This saves time and takes off the workload from doctors, who do not need to flip through detailed charts.
Unsurprisingly, robotics and automation go hand in hand with the automobile industry. The first industrial automation system was implemented in the 1900s and became more sophisticated over time. With an increasing demand for tailor-made cars, automobile manufacturers need to adapt to the changing landscape. This is why cobots are now being used in production lines, as they are flexible and can do a variety of different tasks. This includes all manners of repetitive work such as assembling cars and attaching windshield wipers and door handles. Cobots are also used for painting and finishing, as they are consistent and can work around the clock. With robots handling the jobs, production costs are lowered due to less wasted paint and eliminating human error. Welding is another popular task, as cobots have no fear of injury or pain. Their small size also makes them great at welding together smaller, specific parts.
With a shortage in manufacturing personnel, cobots are used to fill this gap. Automobile manufacturers are already applying them in production lines, such as BMW using cobots to assist with riveting. Other companies jumping on the bandwagon include AUDI, Nissan, Ford, and Dynamic Group.
Ending Thoughts on Cobots
Overall, it is safe to say that cobots will be staying with us. With their use expected to rise in the future, more manufacturers will see their production lines automated or semi-automated. This is due to cobots being more adaptable, flexible, faster, and cost-efficient when compared to traditional manual labor. Cobots are also designed specifically to work with humans safely and take up less area. This makes them an incredible tool for SMEs. Even industries that have traditionally relied on manual labor are likely to pivot and use cobots in the future.