Alan Weissberger Robots

Augmenting the Human Worker with Cobots

Introduction: #

Examples of end-effectors that allow a cobot to interact with its environment

Most industrial experts agree that robotics will be essential to adapt to changes brought upon by automation of manufacturing, labor shortages in warehouses, hazardous environments, and the shift to Electric Vehicles (EVs).  There are also geopolitical drivers for robotics including cybersecurity, climate change, and demographics.  However, there is little or no talk about cobotsWhat is that you ask? Please read on.

We provide background insights, applications, and market analysis of cobots in this article.  They may be the start of an important megatrend within the next five years.

Backgrounder: #

The various forms of human/robot collaboration is depicted in this image that is courtesy of BofA Research.
Human/robot collaboration evolution. Image courtesy of BofA Research.

A collaborative robot, or cobot, is a type of robot intended to physically interact with humans in a shared workspace, be that an office or the factory floor. Collaborative robots are experiencing rapid market growth in this sector of the robotics industry. The primary driving force behind this growth is a consistently decreasing price.

While traditional industrial robots are primarily used for tasks that are impossible or difficult for humans to perform, cobots are mainly used for tasks that can and are performed by human workers. Cobots are often used to replace human workers in mundane, repetitive, tiresome tasks. We provide a list of applications later in this article.

Market Overview: #

The collaborative robots (cobot) market is still in its infancy.  BofA Global Research estimates the market value is just under $500M currently. However, the bank believes it can grow to at least $1.8B by 2025, as the adoption rate accelerates.

Training a Universal Robot with a wand - no computer programmer required.
Training a Universal Robot with a wand – no computer programmer required.

Many collaborative robots are available for under $35K, making them a viable solution in a wide range of applications, inside and outside the factory setting, for big and small companies.  For reference, the average sell price of Universal Robots’ cobot is around $35,000, while the Chinese cobot makers tend to be roughly 30% cheaper.

Advances in edge computing have made collaborative robots more flexible and easier than ever to implement. Often, little to no programming is required to install them, reducing integration costs. Increasing flexibility opens a wide range of new tasks and applications that collaborative robots can effectively automate.

Doing the Dull, Dirty and Dangerous Work

Universal Robotic Arm
Universal Robots’ robotic arm in action

In this interview, Craig Tomita of Universal Robots discusses how cobots can help humans by doing the “dull, dirty, and dangerous” work.

Universal Robots is at the center of a cobot ecosystem that includes third-party end-effectors, accessories, cameras, and software.

Tomita shows how non-programmers can train the robot with a simple wand.

In a recent blog post, Ericsson says

“Cobots may be the next big thing for Industry 4.0. But human-robot collaboration requires application-driven QoS to minimize risks during the performance of critical tasks. Network exposure capabilities offered by 5G will allow service providers to ensure a safer cobot environment.”

“This 5G cobot use case potentially addresses a wide range of industries from manufacturing to mining, where the on-demand control of QoS is triggered by the detection of a relevant, specific service request.”

Caveat: Note that the neither the current 5G RAN standard (ITU-T M.2150) nor the operative 5G NR spec (3GPP Release 16) support the ITU-R performance requirements of URLLC (Ultra High Reliability and Ultra Low Latency).

Growth Drivers and Applications: #

Some of the many drivers for the growth of the cobot market are the following:

  1. Industrial automation spending
  2. The lower total cost of deployment
  3. Easier programming
  4. Easier installation and re-deployment
  5. No need for factory layout change
  6. Higher mobility
  7. Safety around human workers

The continued growth of industrial automation spending will be a big stimulus for the cobot market over the next five years.

Common applications of cobots include assembly, dispensing, finishing, machine tending, material handling, welding, material handling/removal, quality inspections, and many more.

A robotic arm in a machine tool application
A robotic arm in a machine tool application

Some of the key applications of cobots are these:

  • Machine tending: Once machining is completed for a workpiece, cobots can remove the finished workpiece inside the machine, pick up an unprocessed material from a nearby location and place it into the machine for the next cycle of machining.
  • Assembly: Cobots are used to insert, glue, screw, etc. components into a larger assembled piece. For example, cobots can be used to assemble components of an electronics device or an automobile part.
  • Material handling: Cobots can perform loading/unloading, picking & placing, and packaging tasks in the latter stages of production, where products are made ready to be shipped to the next location. For example, cobots are used in distribution centers and warehouses.
  • Quality testing: Cobots with a vision system can check to see if the properties of the products being tested fulfill the specifications.

Market Analysis and Forecast: #

The cobot market is characterized by a few key players – mainly Universal Robots and to a lesser extent Fanuc and Techman.  Those leaders are followed by fragmentation into dozens of other players.

An example of a warehouse picker robot
An example of a warehouse picker robot

Some specialize in the manufacturing of cobots, while others manufacture cobots as an addition to, or extension of, their original extensive lineup of traditional industrial robots (e.g., Fanuc, Yaskawa Electric, and ABB).

The ability of cobot OEMs to establish an ecosystem of peripheral equipment (e.g., grippers, vision systems, etc.), will be an important determinant of success, according to BofA.

BofA Global Research says that in 2025, the cobot market will be at least $1.8B, which would represent only about 6% of the global installed base of industrial robots.  That leaves plenty of room for strong growth.

Market research firm ABI says that cobots have evolved from being “interesting novelties” to a “key emerging market” in less than 10 years.

ABI says the cobot market will grow to a value of $13 billion by 2027.  That is much higher than the BofA forecast for 2025!

The biggest markets currently are in the U.S. and the UK, but the APAC region is expected to be the primary engine of sector growth with China soon taking the lead.

Author Alan Weissberger

By Alan Weissberger

Alan Weissberger is a renowned researcher in the telecommunications field. Having consulted for telcos, equipment manufacturers, semiconductor companies, large end users, venture capitalists and market research firms, we are fortunate to have his critical eye examining new technologies.

5 replies on “Augmenting the Human Worker with Cobots”

Thanks, Alan for the great summary of this important topic.

One of the more interesting cobots will be the addition of autonomy in the trucking industry. Autonomy promises to make the job less dangerous for the trucker. In the latest Smart Driving Cars Podcast, Waymo’s Product Manager Xinfeng Le suggests that by doing the driving part of the task, automation will free the driver to do more value-add work and provide a better customer experience.

Thanks Ken. I’m most intrigued by the use of cobots in telecom as per Ericsson’s blog post: “Together with Hitachi and Georgia Tech, Ericsson has created a solution that aims to increase productivity for cobots by allowing the human operator to share the workload. This is achieved through Ericsson’s high speed, reliable and secure 5G core network. This network is configured via a remote-control client application to ensure the interaction between the robot and human operator is safe, and the robot follows real-time guidance.”

“5G Network capabilities can be monetized by CSPs and used by various industries (e.g. manufacturing and automotive). The deployment of easy-to-use APIs will increase security, suitable network bandwidth and latency and improve communication between specific user equipment (UE) and applications.”

Interesting reference. At first glance, one would ask why not just hard-wire the robots. But, just like WiFi provides a convenience factor, it is probably similar for these so-called micro factories that need to be reconfigured fairly rapidly. Wireless is definitely an advantage over hard-wiring. Some of the factories for autonomous vehicles (which are really robots on wheels) are these so-called micro factories from the likes of Local Motors and Arrival.

Arrival has a pretty cool video showing how they are using robotics to create these so-called micro factories.

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Thanks for the additional references, Alan.

A few more references include:

This article which provides an overview of Nvidia’s Issac Sim, which will help speed the deployment of cobots by providing a simulation tool that allows the creation of a “digital twin” to navigate a virtual environment that replicates the real-world. This should speed up deployment and reduce real-world issues.

and this interview with Steve Crowe of Robotic Trends, where he provides an overview of the robotic business. It features footage of cobots in action from the RoboBusiness conference.

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