Well into the 21st century, the case for automating manufacturing has been made many times over. As robotics evolve to include robots designed to collaborate with humans rather than replacing them, so does the business rationale for automating production.
According to the GE Global Innovation Barometer report issued earlier this year, business executives around the world say that 40 percent of innovations over the last five years have had a positive impact on their company’s bottom line.
In 2008, Universal Robots was the first company to develop a commercially viable collaborative robot – a robotic arm designed to work in close proximity with humans – and remains the industry leader.
The benefits of cobots include a small footprint, ease of operation, deployment and re-deployment, and their ability to serve as tools that enable humans to do their jobs better and more easily. If necessary, however, they can also be used without human intervention.
Cost effectiveness and versatility – Cobots have played a significant role in enabling companies that otherwise might not have been able to afford big-investment industrial robots to start automating their processes – on their own chosen terms and at their own particular tempo.
Re-deployability – Another advantage of using cobots is that they comply with recognized best practices for digital business models, featuring “life after the factory” and thus have long-term viability. They can be programmed and re-programmed virtually endlessly. Cobots can be installed, re-installed and moved around with hardly any restrictions. They can be equipped and re-equipped with a wide selection of end-of-arm tools and supplementary equipment to meet changing needs and priorities.
Re-shoring or repatriation – In the early years of globalization, many companies found that they were able to make use of a low-cost and relatively unskilled labor force in other countries. Re-shoring is bringing manufacturing, assembly and finishing operations back closer to the markets in which their end products are to be sold.
UR helped the American company RSS Manufacturing, which manufactures plumbing fixtures and fittings for faucets, compete with overseas competitors. A UR UR5 cobot increased their monthly output of valves from 400 to 700. In addition, when it was deployed to feed tubes into a mandrel tube bender, the RSS team produced 1,500 pieces in 4 hours, a task that would have taken two or three days using manual labor.
Better jobs – Contrary to widely held beliefs, increasing automation does not have to negatively impact employment. Instead, the introduction of cobots almost always results in net job creation, because the skills of the human workforce can be put to use creating greater value.
“History shows that technological advances – including those that give rise to industrial revolutions – are actually net job creators,” says Esben Østergaard, co-founder and CTO of Universal Robots. “Even in my own experience at Universal Robots, I have seen how automation technology creates jobs. In fact, the factories that have deployed our collaborative robots have significantly increased their headcounts on average, not reduced them.”
Proximity to markets – When a manufacturing, processing or assembly plant is located in the same country (or in close geographical proximity) as the recipients of its goods and services, the whole supply chain and logistics infrastructure is much shorter, easier to manage and has less of an environ-mental impact. Cobot-enabled automation makes it easier for companies to produce goods close to consumers, which benefits the manufacturer, employees, consumers and local communities.
Companies of all sizes benefit – Collaborative robot arms are making the once-costly benefits of robotic technology affordable for companies of any size, including small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs). Due to their lower cost and smaller footprint, cobots enable even the smallest companies significantly enhance their production capabilities without major facility renovations or expensive installations. In addition to their cost – which is only a fraction of the cost of a traditional industrial robot – collaborative robots offer benefits that really matter to SMBs. They can be unpacked, mounted and programmed to complete simple tasks in just hours. And the programming does not require special programming skills. They operate safely right alongside workers, even in the smallest shops.
One smaller company that has benefitted from deploying cobots is Multi-Wing CZ in the Czech Republic. The company manufactures axial fan solutions for ventilation applications and needed to automate production within a very confined workspace to meet growing demand. Removing its old safety guard and installing a UR5 cobot from Universal Robots enabled the company to cut per-unit production costs by 10–20 percent and boost capacity by 336 hours per year.
Bringing back the human touch – For Universal Robots and Esben Østergaard, collaborative robots are also at the heart of another broad consumer trend: A growing desire for all products – even when mass-manufactured – to feel like they’ve been made by human beings.
“Ironically, at the very moment when “lights-out” factories have started to gain traction in actual manufacturing setups, a quite different global consumer trend has emerged,” Østergaard explains. “From craft beers to handmade and sometimes completely personalized luxury goods, products that feature the unambiguous imprint of human involvement are in demand like never before.
“I think of this trend as ‘the return of the human touch,’ and I believe that demand for it is driven by the fundamental human need to connect with others,” he continues. “Not with simulations of others in the form of robots, artificial intelligence and so on, but actual human beings, with human bodies, human experiences, human frailties and human stories to tell. This is something that technology cannot replace, because technical artifacts are simply not human.”
Cobots enable companies to pair the unique skills of craftspeople and other skilled human specialists with the technical capabilities and consistent repetitiveness of a robot in order to reduce production times, boost accuracy and improve product/finish quality.
This frees up human employees to apply their intangible skills and difficult-to-pro¬gram creativity to more complex projects – or to notch up a considerable boost in productivity for their particular craft or skill. This in turn makes it possible to comply with new kinds of market requirements and consumer expectations, often involving greater personalization to individual preferences.