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‘Cobots’ taking their places beside humans

FOR decades, industrial robots have been fenced off from humans to avoid accidents. Now they are increasingly working side-by-side with people, freeing them from dull and repetitive tasks.

Sales of these “collaborative” robots (cobots) jumped almost 75 percent a year between 2014 and last year, and are expected to hit 7.9 billion yuan (US$1.2 billion) in China by 2020.

The figures were outlined in a report on the sector’s potential — the “2017 Blue Paper on the Cobots Industry”, released at the just-ended China International Industry Fair in Shanghai.

Worldwide, the cobot industry is expected to hit about US$4.3 billion by 2023, growing 57 percent a year, other research shows.

Compared with large industrial robots,cobots stop immediately if someone touches them and slow down when people come near.

Their power and force are restricted to ensure people’s safety, according to the International Organization for Standardization.

Swedish-Swiss multinational ABB showcased a collaborative robot named YuMi at the industry fair. Unlike the traditional mechanical giants caged behind thick glass, the small and flexible YuMi was assembling components delivered by workers standing beside it.

Surging demand

Since ABB developed YuMi, its first cobot, two years ago, “we are selling more and more collaborative robots as the demand rises, especially in the electronics industry which needs to assemble small digital devices,” said Dong Zhenghao, an engineer at ABB.

At the fair, ABB also unveiled “the world’s smallest robot” weighing 20 kilograms and taking up a space of 256 square centimeters (160mm x160mm), targeted at the electronics industry.

While traditional industrial robots are generally massive, able to cut and punch steel panels in seconds, cobots are smaller and can do more complex tasks.

Humans are still needed in many industries, such as electronics, food packaging and medical instrument manufacturing.

“However automated our industries are, humans are still necessary to finish complex tasks, such as shifting the components into different positions, or to insert irregular components into tiny holes,” Dong said.

Helped by humans, the efficiency of robots can increase up to 85 percent, said Esben H. Østergaard, chief technology officer at Universal Robots, a Danish manufacturer of small, flexible industrial cobots.

“Robots are not aimed at replacing humans, but to take on the repetitive and dangerous tasks to free people’s hands,” Østergaard said.

But there are still concerns about cobots working with people.

“Safe as YuMi is, you can hardly guarantee safety when it is carrying a sharp knife or a gun while moving quickly,” said Dong.

Collaborative robots are fitted with sensors to help them “see” and “feel” things around them, alerting them to react before dangers happen — which makes them different to traditional robots — but that requires the censors to work constantly and without error.

“Cautiously, we can only say these robots are safe to work with under some set circumstances,” Dong said.

Credible safety

But technology is rapidly changing the industrial scene with giants such as Siemens and Honeywell working on “industrial clouds” that leverage technology to help real-time production.

The essence of “clouds” is to enable real-time monitoring and control over thousands of machines in remotely controlled centers.

They can predict breakdowns, helping engineers carry out preventative maintenance before the system is jeopardized.

Advanced robot producers such as ABB have established their own “cloud” systems to monitor critical robot parts.

“Thus, even though the sensors and the robot as a whole cannot be in good condition forever, their maintenance can be predicted so that the safety of collaborative robots is becoming more and more credible,” Dong said.

Bolstered by advancing technologies, more than 50 robotics companies worldwide have put forward collaborative robots by last month, from the United States to Germany and Japan.

“Especially in China, the number of collaborative robot producers is no smaller than those countries thanks to its continuous technical upgrading,” the blue paper released at CIIF said.

Although collaborative robots accounted for only 1.19 percent of robots worldwide last year, that is growing fast and they are expected to make up 5 percent by 2020, the report said.

While large-scale robots have irreplaceable advantages in massive production such as car making, smaller robots to work with people are required by more and more producers, especially among small and medium companies which have a relative lack of capital but in need of automation, said Jürgen von Hollen, president of Universal Robots.

While companies need to pay at least 600,000 yuan for a traditional robot to be used in mass production, cobots cost about 100,000 to 300,000 yuan as they are smaller and easier to deploy.

And they are more flexible than traditional robots, which helps contain costs when companies need to shift production models, said Lu Zhangyuan, a partner at Shenzhen Gaogong Industry Research Consulting Co.

“In line with large robotic machines taking on repetitive and dangerous tasks, there are more and more robots coming closer to people,” Lu said.

“There will be more ways to be found, where people and robots work perfectly.”
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