While just a decade ago they represented an emerging technology generally greeted with skepticism, today collaborative robots - also known as cobots - represent the fastest growing segment of industrial robotics. And they are designed to work closely with humans. The term has a very precise meaning, which derives from the combination of the two words collaborative and robot, and in fact goes to describe a robotic technology capable of combining at the same time operational and integrative flexibility, and able to interact safely with the surrounding environment and of course with the operators with whom the machines share specific tasks.
You will understand then how cobots have the power, as part of business innovation, to deeply change the paradigms of production and work, and the relationship between machine and man as it is traditionally understood. And if it is true that robotics and artificial intelligence in general are growing exponentially, in the same way the advent of Industry 5.0 will bring with it significant changes on society and new scenarios of application of this type of innovations. All in the name of a more sustainable, resilient and human-centered industry.
Cobots: definition and history of collaborative robots
Collaborative robots, by definition, are able to automate a large number of applications, and to move in areas also very different from each other. We are faced with powerful and flexible tools, whose simplicity and speed of programming makes them ready to enter immediately into production and to move from one activity to another in a very short time. The first definition of cobot was registered thanks to a 1999 patent, dedicated to "an apparatus and method for direct integration between a person and a generic manipulator controlled by a computer". In the present day, the description refers to what we would define as an intelligent assistance device (IAD), practically the ancestor of modern cobots, useful to the famous General Motors to implement robotics in the crowded and very competitive automotive sector.
The ultimate goal was to help workers in assembly operations, with the machine moving in an uncaged environment. It wasn't until 2004 that KUKA, a German company that pioneered collaborative robotics, released the LBR3, the first lightweight cobot with its own motion power supply, in collaboration with Germany's Central Aerospace Institute, which was then refined with two additional models in 2008 and 2013.
In the same years, Denmark's Universal Robot released the UR5, the first cobot capable of performing tasks absolutely safely alongside the workforce, effectively launching the era of flexible collaborative robots - characterized by lower costs and greater ease of use. Notwithstanding the initial and physiological skepticism, up to now the industrial robot market is registering a constant annual growth of 50%. For a turnover of over 3 billion dollars. Compared to more traditional industrial robots, those used in collaborative robotics are both extremely smaller and lighter, and designed to work side by side with people. Without needing guards or enclosures, cobots can respect distances and safety measures, both with each other and with humans, by taking advantage of increasingly accurate native safety, advanced sensors and advanced programming. To give just a few examples, they can stop in the event of contact with an operator or slow down in the event of imminent contact, without considering that the times and distances of the stops are programmable and customizable. The field of collaborative robotics is therefore an inexhaustible source of new opportunities for integrating automation into the so-called intelligent factory. A cobot is a compact and safe robot, but above all it represents a tool with its own intelligence in the hands of workers and operators in general. And it is characterized, as we mentioned earlier, by a marked simplicity of programming and use, together with the typical rapidity of integration in the production chain and the almost immediate economic return on investment. It is therefore natural to think of collaborative robots as anthropomorphic machines with movements on six axes, designed precisely to respect criteria of safety, flexibility and compactness. And, once again, designed to work in close contact with the operator even without the presence of protective barriers.
Collaborative robots and industrial robots: the differences
Now that we have generally understood what collaborative robots are, it seems clear that the robots used by private companies and public administration are not all the same: we distinguish them by size, speed, range of action, application ability and operational flexibility. Without forgetting the cost and the need or not of safety barriers. More specifically, the differences between cobots and traditional robots are particularly marked in the sector, and can be simplified by referring to three specific properties. The first is the aforementioned level of safety, which is so high in collaborative robotics as to allow machines to act without costly barriers, due to the 17 native safety features present by default under their shells and a wide range of sensors. The second relates instead to flexibility, the true hallmark that distinguishes a cobot.
Traditional robots in fact give way to a rigid type of automation that is optimal only on large production volumes, while the small size allows cobots to be moved easily within the confines of industry to be used only where needed. Not only that, the flexibility of these tools is emphasized by their ease of programming, which goes hand in hand with speed of deployment - the third property on the list. Programming, which is simple and intuitive, can be done in two different modes: the so-called teach pendant, which uses touch screen functionality and a graphical template to set the cobot's programs right away, and free drive, which gives you the ability to program the robot by moving its arm in space, so that it can perfectly replicate the desired action.
In practice, this is an off-the-shelf solution capable of enhancing production lines and processes, even with a power supply through 220 V voltage that makes it virtually integrable anywhere - even in some civil contexts. An application that is handled synergistically by an operator and a collaborative robot is also 85% more productive than a fully automated or fully manual application, precisely because of the ability of cobots to combine the best of human effort and the precision of automation itself with a distinct advantage.
Another huge incentive for the use of collaborative robotics is the fact that these machines have the ability to switch between tasks without interruption. This is true irrespective of the application area, the size of the company, and the nature of the product, making it a very suitable technology even for assembly lines working on small batches and mixed production.
The evolution of collaborative robotics
Although in the opening lines we wanted to emphasize how fast the development and diffusion of collaborative robots is, at present there are quite a few companies that have expressed doubts about their integration, while for most production plants it is still difficult to foresee their actual application. As with any area of science and technology, there are several limitations and challenges for cobots. One rhymes first and foremost with the need to pursue more refined manual dexterity, particularly when picking up and processing small and rather delicate components. The other, in parallel, focuses on the ability to make decisions quickly to avoid obstacles without interrupting production - with all the consequences.
Industry leaders are already working to solve these demanding challenges, and are seeking answers by developing cobots equipped with faster and faster processors and integrated vision systems. These solutions, which paint an ambitious but futuristic Industry 5.0, will allow cobots themselves to be exponentially more productive. Not only that, the collaborative machines will help to contain - and eventually solve - critical issues and problems within any production cycle, bringing improvements in terms of energy savings, resources and time.
It is then no coincidence that among the characteristics of the new generation of industrial robots there is a greater versatility of use, an incisive adaptability to situations not known in advance, an accurate positioning accuracy, and the repeatability of execution of which we have already said several times. Cobots, in short, represent both a constantly growing present and an increasingly automated future: fears, even for those in the industry, continue to have reason to be, but the ferment for the next evolution is inevitable. The programming philosophy of cobots, in fact, leverages on winning parameters, developing and using real mechanical, robotic and very articulated arms.