Collaborative Robots and the New Normal in Manufacturing

Collaborative Robots and the New Normal in Manufacturing

Manufacturers’ needs are shifting, and they have been unable to automate 90 percent of tasks that traditional automation has been unable to reach. Currently, manufacturers recognize that they need to be more responsive to market changes, ready to deliver on customer preferences and able to innovate faster and more efficiently than their competitors. Collaborative robots are pioneering a new generation of manufacturing innovation on the factory floor, and shifting the way that businesses compete.

By Jim Lawton, chief product and marketing officer, Rethink Robotics | Feb 2016

As personalization becomes the de facto standard in society, and consumers demand more customization in every facet of their daily lives, factories need to be more nimble and flexible than ever before. New parts, processes and production lines need to be implemented quickly and efficiently in order to serve fluctuating customer demands. While automating tasks with robots on the factory floor has been in place for decades, traditional industrial robots are poorly suited for the new shifts in production: Most of these expensive robots can only perform a single task, take up a large amount of space and need to operate behind safety caging. In fact, more than 90 percent of physical tasks performed in manufacturing environments can’t be practically or economically automated by industrial robots.

Companies are turning to truly collaborative robots to fill this automation gap. For example, Baxter and Sawyer are able to adapt to real-world variability, can change applications quickly and perform tasks like humans do. The result: Manufacturers across industries get the fast-to-deploy, easy-to-use and versatile automation solution they need to increase flexibility, lower costs and accelerate innovation.

Manufacturers have been unable to deploy traditional robots in the factory because of extensive programming time and costs. This new generation of robots are not programmed, but are trained by demonstration, meaning that virtually anyone can train robots to complete tasks simply by showing them what to do. Unlike traditional industrial robots that take hundreds of hours to program, and require a highly paid engineer or consultant with programming expertise, Baxter and Sawyer can be trained to perform a task in a matter of minutes. With a true train-by-demonstration method, employees with little to no technical background can deploy and redeploy automation quickly and effectively, therefore saving time and money.

Another significant concern for traditional industrial robots is the ability to work in semi-structured manufacturing environments. Now, robots like Baxter and Sawyer are able to deal with real-world variability, reliably feel their way into fixtures designed for human hands and shift among various tasks quickly. Collaborative robots are now deployed in a wide variety of industries, including plastics, contract manufacturing, electronics, automotive, metal fabrication, consumer goods and research and education. The robots are not limited to those spaces; they are adaptable to virtually any environment, and can be used for tasks that cross numerous industries, including packaging, line loading and unloading, kitting, machine tending, circuit board testing and material handling. Automating these tasks enables human workers to complete tasks that require higher cognitive ability, thereby increasing workforce efficiency and retention.

Collaborative robots are revolutionizing the factory floor, and this new generation of technology is changing the game and helping companies excel in the new manufacturing normal.