As we move to the realization of more Industry 4.0 implementations as part of an ongoing industrial transformation journey, the use of collaborative robots (cobots), which are designed to work alongside people in, among others manufacturing , warehousing, logistics and healthcare, is expected to grow at astonishing rates in the next few years.
The idea of cobots nor the use of cobots is new. Yet, usage and developments are accelerating faster than many believe and cobots play a big role in the development of Industry 4.0 and the Industrial Internet of Things.
Recent evolutions regarding both the technologies and the market contribute to this rapid growth. As an example: in April 2017, DHL announced a partnership with Locus Robotics. And it’s not just in the factory or the warehouse. Previously we mentioned how in the digital transformation of healthcare, there is a key role for the IoT and for robotics, including cobots.
In our article on the Internet of Things in healthcare we pointed to IDC data. The company expects a 50 percent increase of robots in hospitals for delivery purposes by 2019. And there is more, even in the consumer space (which we don’t cover here).
Let’s start with looking at what cobots really are, without a formal definition but by focusing on the key characteristics.
A traditional industrial robot is not designed to collaborate with people. It’s designed to complete a very specific pre-defined task without a need for collaboration within a physical workspace. They aren’t designed with human safety as a key priority (there are variations); they just need to do their task. Where industrial robots are used, you’ll typically find safety measures and often they are fully caged and shielded from humans on the work floor, e.g. with fences.
Cobots are collaborative robots with an emphasis on collaboration between robot and human. In general, cobots are predominantly tested and effectively used for repetitive tasks whereby intelligent support systems using cobots assist the worker, rather than replacing him. A cobot in general is also much more lightweight than an industrial robot, because of the mentioned safe collaboration aspect and the fact that cobots typically are mobile and/or can be easily moved. A cobot is smarter than a classic industrial robot. This doesn’t mean that cobots are more complex, but that they are equipped with sensors, smart technologies and systems which are linked with the IoT and/or specific systems (for instance, warehouse management systems). Why, because cobots need to safely assist a human being and these smart technologies help make them people-aware, location-aware and context-aware.
For additional information on the fourth industrial revolution (Industry 4.0), see What Is Industry 4.0, Anyway?