There’s a big difference between collaborative and cooperative robots

While the executive suite may be excited about putting robots to work in their factories, the people on the plant floor have to look at many factors before deciding just where and how best to use them.

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That’s the advice from Ben Sagan and Adam Welch, two robotics experts at Mitsubishi Electric. “The first question we ask a customer is, what are you looking to achieve? We find that many people are not always defining their problem in the right way,” says Sagan. “There are many factors to consider and the problem may not be where you think it is.”

You also have to decide whether you’re want a collaborative or a cooperative robot system. While there are differing definitions of what a collaborative robot is, the simplest way to explain it is that a cobot is one that can work together with a human being on some activity. A cooperative robot system, on the other hand, uses safety equipment with an industrial robot to safeguard the space so the robot and a human can perform tasks simultaneously during automatic operation.

“There are all kinds of ramifications when making that choice, and it’s not just about payloads or cycle times. There are very important issues involving human safety and training,” explains Welch. “Despite what you may have heard, you can’t just plop a cobot onto the factory floor and expect it to start working. You need to do proper planning so the cobot is used in the proper place and for the right reason. We’re finding that companies are spending a lot of time and money trying to force a robot into an activity where it just doesn’t fit.”

Sagan agrees. “There are lots of misconceptions about cobots, such as that you don’t need safety equipment, that they’re easy to program without training or that they’re just plug and play. The truth is, you can’t just find somewhere to shoehorn them in. When that happens, they end up becoming just the latest toy, standing in a corner collecting dust.”

It’s important that the people tasked with making use of robots in factory processes do their own research. Cobots, for example, can only handle lighter payloads and they run slower in order to protect humans. No robot is intrinsically safe, so what additional safety measures are required? How are the parts presented to the robot? Are they on a pallet or tray? If not, are you willing to incorporate a part orientation device like a feeder bowl or a vision system to get the necessary information to perform a successful and reliable pick of the component? What are the communications requirements needed for the system? Does your current staff have the required skills to perform these tasks or does an integrator need to be involved to ensure the system is properly integrated?

“There are a lot of ‘what ifs’ you have to consider when deciding whether to deploy a cobot,” explains Sagan. “Even if it can pick up a 44 pound box, what other components are involved in the process? Does the task list you have fit the robot’s programming system?

“Even if you have a driver’s license, the skills needed to drive in the Indianapolis 500 are not the same,” he emphasizes. “The same is true with using a cobot. You may know how to palletize, but not how to do it with automation. You can easily spend $28,000 annually in maintenance to keep cobots running in an application they’re not designed to do.”

It’s important to understand that there’s not a robot today that can replace a human in all functions. “Think of them like a fork truck, ” says Welch. “They have limits compared to the intricate movements a human can perform when moving boxes around.”

Adds Sagan, “Cobots are not a panacea. If you don’t have experience, ask a robot professional to guide you. A cobot can solve many different problems, but it’s a tool with certain limitations. We advise people to walk before they run. Start with something simple, then when your workers are comfortable with them, you can move on to something more complex.”

You can learn more about Mitsubishi Electric’s robot solutions at MEAU.com/robotics.

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