The Winner of the Robot Battles Is…Coexistence

As collaborative robots enter the automation ring, don’t expect a big faceoff with industrial robot competitors. More likely, both will work side-by-side along with human workers.

In the industrial automation arena, robotics has been girding for a fight: The incumbent heavyweight champion, the industrial robot, faces off against a fresh newcomer, the more nimble, lighter-weight collaborative robot. Don’t expect either to deliver a knockout punch, however. Instead, many believe coexistence will be the long-term winning strategy, with each technology playing its own unique role in the future of manufacturing.

Industrial robots, decades-long stalwarts used in the production lines of the automotive and heavy machinery industries, are universally regarded as workhorses, adept at performing highly repetitive activities involving heavy materials at accelerated speeds with a high degree of accuracy. These are the robots lifting drive trains, doing welding work, or spray-painting parts—activities that don’t vary much from product to product. On the downside, industrial robots are not easily repurposed for other applications, they are considered difficult to program, and they must do their work within a contained cage environment to protect human workers on the factory floor.

As a result of these limitations and their high cost (which put industrial robots out of reach for many small and mid-sized businesses), traditional robots have remained mostly in the automotive sector and enjoyed steady though contained growth, according to market researchers. The International Federation of Robots (IFR) estimates there are about 1.5 million robots deployed globally with about 230,000 in the U.S. alone. A report by Allied Market Research projects the global industrial robotics market to expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 5.4 percent, swelling from $26.78 billion in 2012 to $41.17 billion by 2020.

However, advancements in artificial intelligence (AI), sensors, human-robot interaction and other technologies have led to the development of new collaborative robots, which experts say will push robot adoption numbers higher, particularly among smaller companies. This new breed of robot is typically smaller and more user-friendly than its traditional counterpart and excels at lower-volume, flexible applications like sorting, material handling, or line loading and unloading. Unlike industrial robots that need to stay locked behind a cage, collaborative robots can easily be adapted to new applications and work side-by-side with humans, performing jobs that their heavyweight counterparts cannot and in much less real estate than what’s required for a caged environment. Thanks to these benefits and their lower cost, ABI Research projects the market for collaborative robots to surge to $1 billion by 2020, up from a mere $95 million in 2015.

Yet rather than the growth of collaborative robots eating into industrial robot penetration, market insiders and robotics vendors expect the two contenders to complement each other and increase opportunity for automation. “Less than 10 percent of tasks in factories are automated because they are not good candidates for traditional robots,” says Jim Lawton, chief product and marketing officer for Rethink Robotics, one of the major players in the emerging collaborative robot field with its Baxter and Sawyer models. “If you think of a traditional production line, there are a bunch of people in an environment that all bring different roles and capabilities and they interact with each other. These robots will do the same. It’s going to be a collaboration of old and new, with each relegated to the roles they perform best.”

Collaboration takes all kinds
In fact, some robotics experts argue that the choice shouldn’t come down to choosing between an industrial or collaborative robot, but rather taking stock of the application for automation—specifically, the level of collaboration necessary—and choosing the appropriate technology from there. “It’s really all about the application that makes something collaborative or not—it goes far beyond just the hardware,” says Alex Bonaire, product manager for Mitsubishi Electric Automation. “Few talk about the actual terms of what makes a robot collaborative because even an industrial robot that’s not force-limited can be collaborative.”

What Bonaire is referring to are the four collaborative operation scenarios typically associated with robots. A safety-rated, monitored stop means a robot will sense and not move when an operator enters a shared workspace; hand guiding allows an operator to use hand control to guide the robot, including where to go and what to do; speed and separation monitoring ensures a robot will respond with predetermined slower speeds or stop if a worker comes too close; and power and force limiting, the capability most typically associated with the newer ilk, empowers robots to stop upon sensing an external force to prevent serious injury.

With those scenarios in mind, Mitsubishi sees plenty of opportunity to retrofit existing industrial robots with capabilities that will make them more collaborative and able to coexist in the same workspace as humans, Bonaire explains. For example, Mitsubishi’s SafePlus safety technology leverages sensor and scanner technologies to allow existing Mitsubishi industrial robots to work alongside human operators. The solution offers three primary safety functions, including limiting a robot’s maximum speed when activated, preventing the robot from entering the part of the work cell occupied by the operator, and torque monitoring controls used to stop operation in the event of a collision with an operator.

While Mitsubishi is also working on a force-limited arm robot, Bonaire says the SafePlus product lets manufacturers gain the benefits of collaborative functionality without having to invest in an entirely new platform. “This enables them to enjoy the best of both worlds,” he says. “It allows customers to use traditional robots and use the functions those robots are good at—things like speed, payload capacity and accuracy.”

ABB Robotics has been working on similar collaborative solutions for nearly a decade, driven by manufacturers’ desire for greater flexibility, space savings, and need to curtail costs, says Hui Zhang, head of global product management for ABB Robotics. Through its safety-certified robot monitoring software called SafeMove2, manufacturers can benefit from closer collaboration between traditional robots and factory workers facilitated through features like safe speed limits, safe standstill monitoring, and safe axis ranges and position, all customizable and accessible through ABB’s IRC5 robot controller family.

“Standard industrial robots with the right control technology can operate in a collaborative way,” Zhang says. “Traditionally, robots have been caged, so to try to move something around has been very difficult and time-consuming for those on the plant floor. With the SafeMove2 technology, you don’t need to have cages around the robot, but if someone gets too close, the robot can still respond in a safe way.”

With its human dimensions and human movements, YuMi is ABB’s first collaborative, dual-arm industrial robot targeted for small parts assembly environments. Source: ABB Robotics

Like Mitsubishi, ABB also sees the need for different degrees of collaboration. Citing an opportunity to expand its reach to different applications and industries (electronics and food and beverage, for example), ABB is now offering YuMi, a force-limited collaborative robot. With its adaptable hands, force control sensing and vision guidance, among other features, YuMi is specifically designed as a small parts assembly solution, working alongside humans, but allowing them to concentrate on more cognitive tasks, Zhang explains. These requirements don’t fit every collaborative use case, however. “There are industries that don’t require a person to be in constant presence,” Zhang says. “In those cases, control technology like SafeMove2 will enable collaborative operations.”

Yaskawa Motoman’s traditional industrial robot line is also being augmented with a new model designed specifically to deploy on materials handling, machine tending or light assembly tasks in an environment where humans work alongside machines, says Chetan Kapoor, the company’s senior director of technology innovation. The HC10 robot, now in the final stages of safety certification and slated for release in the second quarter of 2017, has been built to be collaborative and coexist with traditional robots with its support for hand-guided demonstration, easy programmability, and dual torque sensors in all six joints.

Motoman’s HC10 human-collaborative robot incorporates force-limiting technology to stop the robot in the event of contact with an operator. Source: Yaskawa

This approach is optimal compared with outfitting a traditional robot with force sensors or padding to limit sensitivity, says Kapoor, who notes that can add cost and bulk to the robot design. “All aspects of human/robot coexistence have to be looked at, not just force sensitivity,” he says. “If you’re working next to a Pillsbury Doughboy robot, it’s no fun working in a confined space.”

New applications, users
Universal Robots and Rethink Robotics, two of the leaders in the emerging collaborative robot space, contend the built-from-the-ground-up, force-limited designs will open up a world of new applications and use cases. High-volume, low-mix applications and environments like machine shops, with multiple machines doing smaller runs, are where the ease of programmability of new collaborative robots can really shine, says Douglas Peterson, Universal Robots’ general manager of the Americas region.

Small and mid-sized companies, which typically lack on-staff experts in programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and robotics programming language, can tap the new graphical user interfaces (GUIs) to initiate jobs and make line modifications without having to call in a programmer with years of experience. In addition, these new lower-cost collaborative robots hold promise for smaller shops that can benefit from the flexibility of leveraging a single robot for many tasks.

“Larger robots are a fixed investment while collaborative robots are less of an investment upfront, are easier to program, and can be deployed on many different operations in a small factory,” Peterson explains.

Dynamic Group, a contract manufacturer, is a living, breathing example of the benefits of robot coexistence, having added several Universal Robots collaborative robot arms to work in concert with its existing Cartesian industrial robot, says CEO Joe McGillivray. Instead of having human operators performing highly repetitive trimming work and handing material off to the traditional style robot, a Universal Robots UR10 robot arm takes a molded piece of material from the Cartesian robot, places it in a degating fixture, and palletizes the part on a table for operator inspection. Prior to this setup, the parts fell into a conveyor and had to be physically caught by the human operator, which was a challenging and error-prone process, McGillivray says.

Because of the UR10’s simple user interface, Dynamic Group didn’t have to invest in engineering resources to program the robot for the job and it was able to create a safe robot/worker environment without having to devote space and money to caging. “It was a lower-cost solution and it allows us to be more flexible,” he explains.

Because it’s still early days for collaborative robots, there are bound to be challenges to coexistence—from integration issues to the cultural battle of getting workers to trust the new technology. Just because collaborative capabilities address many of the safety issues related to robots working in close proximity with humans, it doesn’t mean that workers will immediately be onboard nor will environments be free of other potential risks.

“Now that you will have operators in the area, you have to do a deeper risk assessment to make sure everything is safeguarded properly,” says Greg Buell, senior engineer and collaborative robot product manager for Fanuc America, which in addition to its line of industrial robots now offers the CR-35iA collaborative robot. “For 30 years, we’ve been telling workers that robots need to be in cages and now we’re telling them they don’t have to. They have to be educated and experience working with these new robots so they can get comfortable.”

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