Industrial co-bots - a quick overview of the new fast-growing trend

17 February 2020

Written by Valerija Olsevska

Due to decreasing device costs, collaborative robots or co-bots is the fastest growing segment in industrial robotics. Co-bots market is projected to reach $36.84 billion by 2026, representing a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 44.56% during the forecast period of 2019-2026. A significant part of this growth is attributed to SMEs engaged in high mix, low volume production and with limited investment capital. Maintaining product flexibility and cost of goods low, shortage of qualified workers, increasing labour cost, and tight profit margins push SMEs to automate. While traditional stand-alone robotic systems are out of their reach, the average selling price of co-bots ranging from €20 – 40k creates a very appealing business case for automation at SMEs.

The modern market of co-bots already has its famous players like  Kuka, ABB, Fanuc, and Yaskawa, and offers a wide variety of solutions for various applications. Equipped with multiple motion and force detecting sensors, co-bots are able to operate safely alongside human workers. Rather than replacing humans, co-bots are used to enhance workers’ strength and precision in certain tasks and support processes that require flexibility. These easily programmable and lightweight machines can quickly be moved into a new position on the shop floor and re-deployed to a different function. The main disadvantages of modern co-bots are limited payload capacity and an operating speed. From the IT-system perspective, we know that MES (Manufacturing Execution System) leverages strongly the value of robot technology on the shop floor. The MES streamlines both the technical and supply chain data from the business system level – PLM and ERP – towards the shop floor machines and people. For co-bots the requirements to MES are different and luckily less demanding.

While a business case for co-bot seems straightforward, a good integration plan with a strong understanding and definition of expectations and short- and long-term objectives should not be underestimated. In fact, according to Ultra Tech Automation, manufacturers could be wasting as much as $86,000 per year on each operation that requires the use of collaborative robotics, due to improper, insufficient or even non-existent integration of the robots into their processes. Simply plugging in robots into production won’t solve existing problems in a factory. The actual needs have to be identified, what are the tasks performed by human workers which are possible to (partially) robotize, what is the motivation behind it – are those hazardous, repetitive or just inefficient. Reviewing the requirements for throughput, along with the weight and complexity of handled items, and production systems as whole is crucial. If there are bottlenecks deep down in the stream, and robotization happens in other stage, the goal won’t be achieved. Once a clear need defined, manufacturing processes and procedures must be redesigned to maximize the robot’s potential and secure your safety standards. Co-bot implementation also mean redeployment of your workers to more-value added tasks. This is a huge new source of opportunities which also demands attention to new skills and training.

Evaluating the bottom line and getting to the strategic viewpoint first should save you from missing opportunities. At the end, the main question is what you are trying to accomplish with a co-bot and what it will cost you to achieve it. A company manager is in the lead, and the initiation, selection and implementation challenge cannot be ‘outsourced’ to a supplier of co-bots.

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