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Cobots are everywhere. The Danish Collaborative robotics pioneer, Universal Robots, has recently achieved a major milestone: the sale and installation of their 50,000th cobot. This is not only a well-deserved win for an innovative company after 15 years of hard work, but it is also a win for everyone involved in collaborative robotics and industrial automation as a whole.
But first let’s look at the lucky cobot.
The Lucky Cobot
Delivered to VEMA GmbH, a German company located in Baden-Württemberg, the 50,000th Universal Robots cobot has a long life of performing pick and place tasks. The cobot itself has been christened Jürgen after the outgoing President of Universal Robots, Jürgen von Hollen.
The cobot will be joining a small family of other cobots that VEMA already has on site – all from Universal Robots.
Importance for us all
This milestone is important for Universal Robots, naturally, as it is proof of their products quality and of a consistent commitment to improvement in a rapidly changing and advancing industry.
But it also important for the entire industry.
It indicates that not only are cobots capable of filling enduser needs, but that they can do it consistently. So consistently that companies like VEMA, who are already automating processes on the floor with cobots, return to buy more.
Clearly cobots are filling a serious industry need. Nevertheless, many people often call into question the true value of cobots, especially in relation to “traditional” industrial robots.
And it’s a valid question.
What convinced this company to buy another cobot? They already had three, what convinced them to splurge on a fourth?
And splurging it is. As many armchair roboticians are wont to point out, cobots are two to three times the cost of a similar, non-collaborative robot. On top of that they are less accurate and slower.
When you’re lining up the pros and cons, that’s already a lot of cons to start out with! So, how has Universal Robots managed to sell 50,000 of them? Why are more and more manufacturers entering this space? Why did VEMA pick a cobot? And, why are we convinced that cobots are an integral part of the future of automation?
We believe that there are three primary reasons that cobots are wooing new customers and winning back old ones
One of the most important differentiating aspects of cobots is their built in safety features. Naturally, nothing – and certainly no industrial tool – is 100% safe and foolproof. That said, cobots are a huge step forward from industrial robots.
Among other things, there are a number of highly sensitive torque sensors in some or all rotational axes (this depends on the manufacturer). These sensors allow for the robot to identify when it has bumped into or hit something with which it is not supposed to come into contact.
This, in conjunction with limitations on linear speed, allow for the robot to stop moving before applying too much force to whatever it hit. This helps to prevent the robot from accidently hurting someone or damaging its surroundings.
Further, because of these built-in safety features, cobots take up significantly less space. As they move slower and can detect objects that they bump, they don’t need all the accessory safety equipment that a traditional industrial robot requires.
Traditional industrial robots often require costly and space-devouring cages, cobots don’t.
Another major advantage of cobots is their flexibility. Cobot manufacturers like Universal Robots design their robots to be as flexible as possible. What does this mean in reality, though?
In a practical sense, cobots are more flexible than traditional industrial robots because they can be moved from one station, place, or process to another. User-friendliness is a major design goal for all cobots. Manufacturers have made great strides towards making the programming of a cobot as simple as possible.
New processes can often be stitched together within the GUI of most modern cobots and many manufacturers are making hands-on teaching a more integral part of the package. That is, instead of using a GUI and dragging and dropping commands and movements into place, the user or technician can simply guide the robot arm to different stations. In so doing, the robot learns new movements and positions – all without the involvement of a single programmer.
Naturally, for more complex tasks an integrator will likely have to develop a specific solution, but huge strides are being made every year to make cobots even easier to teach and program.
And as the easier they are to program, the more rapidly a process can be changed or a cobot can be redeployed to a different station.
Closely linked to flexibility, adaptability is another major selling point of cobots. There is a huge array of third-party parts for cobots. Most cobots themselves are already quite flexible insofar as it is not difficult to program many basic to intermediate tasks.
However, the real utility of this kind of flexible design would be lost if there wasn’t a constellation of easy-to-integrate third-party parts for most major manufacturers.
Universal Robots and other major cobot producers enjoy a huge ecosystem of interchangeable grippers and parts made by a huge number of specialist companies. OnRobot, Robotiq, and SoftGripping, just to name a few, produce parts that are extremely easily integrated into modern cobots. Many are simply plug-and-play!
This means that an investment in a cobot is not limited to handling just one kind of material or performing just one kind of process.
In conjunction with machine vision, cobots become even more adaptable as they can then deal with much less predictable and regular material and processes.
The sum of all features
Safety, adaptability, and flexibility all sum up to an experience that can be called “collaborative.” Not only can these robots work in conjunction with people, thanks to their built-in safety features, but they can also be quickly repurposed from one task or station to another.
What a cobot is doing today doesn’t have anything to do with what it’s doing tomorrow.
This is the sum of safety, flexibility, and adaptability. And for many companies, like VEMA, it is a winning combination – despite the difference in price. Why?
Small robots, big potential
Traditional industrial robots have had a hard time breaking into the large market that is small and medium-sized manufacturers (e.g., the Mittelstand in Germany). Rather, traditional industrial robots were long the domain of large, mass-producing manufacturers like the major car brands. In fact, these were the pioneers of automated manufacturing 50 years ago!
But for smaller manufacturers, who don’t need to produce such a high volume or standardized products, robots have been a harder sell. not because the underlying economics weren’t at play for small manufacturers (rising labor costs, increased competition, etc.). Rather, they remained robot-adverse because the robots themselves couldn’t function in a less controlled, small-batch environment.
The fact that their built-in safety features allow them to operate without a cumbersome cage makes them even more appealing to smaller companies. These companies often simply lack the floorspace that a large business might have.
The sale of Universal Robots 50,000th collaborative robot is a big step for them, but a giant leap for the entire industry. It indicates that businesses are recognizing the unique value that cobots provide and that they are willing to pay for it.
While cobots remain expensive when compared to their industrial cousins, they are getting less expensive and more capable every year. As there are still many, many small and medium-sized manufacturers that are employing either no robots or a very low volume of them, the cobot invasion is just getting started.
So once again, we at Unchained Robotics congratulate Universal Robots on this milestone! It certainly won’t take another 15 years to sell the next 50,000!