What is the difference between industrial robots and cobots ?

Since the beginning of the 60s, industries have adopted robots to expand their work force in multiple ways. They increased their productivity in repetitive tasks and handled extreme working conditions -like in nuclear plants. 

Yet, standard industrial robots are increasingly showing their limitations. Besides being not safe for workers to work with, they are very costly and not easy to deploy, especially for industrial SMEs.

A new generation of collaborative robots (cobots)- cheaper, safe and very ergonomic- are set to redefine the robotics market. They make employee’s work better by working alongside them. Here’s where these new robots are from, what they can do, and what you can do with them.

What are industrial robots, and where do they come from ?

Kawasaki Unimate, first japanese industrial robot

Industrial robots are machines designed and manufactured to perform tasks in dangerous or inaccessible environments, such as factories. To understand their purpose, you need to know the long history of automation in the American, European and Japanese 20th industries.

Robots were first developed in the 1920s Japan, and were originally designed as mechanical toys or objects of art. Early robots were controlled by people, looking like humanoid puppets. But they weren’t production focused.

During World War II, factories were retooled to produce weapons, and as the war wound down, factories became obsolete. That’s when the first robotic invention started to bear fruits.

In the United States, inventor George Devol designed in 1961 the first industrial robots, which was installed in General Motors’ factories. Called Unimate, this robot was driven by vacuum tubes and was aimed at transporting dangerous die castings. Later on, European and Japanese competitors replicated this invention in their respective market. For example, Kawasaki-Unimate 2000, the first robot controlled by a computer produced in Japan, was first used in 1968. 

All this boom in industrial automation sparked the development of new robot technology that we know today. In 1997, Kohei Hirose, a Japanese industrial engineer, developed a robotic hand to help perform delicate tasks. Hirose’s invention was the first of its kind, and although it wasn’t quite the success that it hoped to be, it did manage to attract the attention of a major corporation, Toyota, which purchased the rights.

In our closer time, according to an estimate by the Association for Advancing Automation, a U.S.-based industry group, there were 465,000 industrial robots in the U.S., and 2.4 million worldwide, in 2015.  And about 32% of industrial robots are used in the automotive industry.

Current industrial robots come in a wide variety of sizes and shapes. There are usually three types of robots: articulated, cartesian and SCARA robots.

Articulated robots can grasp items in any direction, but are limited in the number of degrees of freedom (DOF) they can move. Cartesian robots have only two DOF and can move in only one axis at a time. They are elegant and offer easy programming. But they’re also more expensive. SCARA robots (or 3-axis robots) have 3 DOF, making them ideal for operations that require multiple movements in tight spaces. They are cheaper and can save space in factories, but they require more complex programming.

But while this market of industrial robots is maturing, a new kind of robotics is taking the lead.

Why do we need cobots, and how do we define them ?

Ergonomic cobot from Franka Emika

After decades of automation, from manufacturing plants to workshops, the industrial robotic market was as hot as ever in the end of the 20th century. Robot had made industries more productive and give them ways to handle dangerous and repetitive tasks. But they were still limited to their work area and closed constitution. Workers couldn’t easily reach them to help and reprogram them, while they couldn’t handle more flexible and evolving processes.

In the early 1990s, a group of engineers, mathematicians, and computer scientists, started to think about robots that are safer, smarter and more sensitive. They wanted to make a robotic hand that could smoothly manipulate objects, like humans. But they didn’t want to just build a better robot hand. They wanted to build a person, or better still, a human-like robot. They had two big problems. First, how do you make a robot hand move like a person’s? How do you give a robot a sense of touch? Second, how do you make a robot feel like a person?

Researchers Michael Peshkin and J. Edward Colgate from Northwestern University came with a new kind of more flexible robot to relieve workers in the General Motor Manufacturing plants. Even with automated assembly lines, these employees still had to lift heavy loads. Peshkin and Colgate designed an intelligent winch system that lifted loads by detecting movement intent. Workers only had to push it a little to carry any object efficiently. 

These devices that multiply the workers’ strength have since spread in the industries as “collaborative robots”. Theses collaborative robots have now been used to work alongside humans in hazardous or repetitive tasks where strict adherence to safety guidelines is necessary; like welding or painting. They have become popular in industries like auto parts factories, plastics factories, but also workshops and laboratories. The latest models from companies like Rethiniking Robotics or Franka Emika are betting to sell them to small and medium industries thanks to economically-optimized design and ease of use. The SMEs never really had access to automation due to high cost and lack of expertise, and cobots are an accessible solution for that.

Cobots also feature more and more advanced sensing capabilities to sense their surroundings, prevent collisions and increase the safety of humans. The best cobots today are easy to use, so that, in many cases, workers don’t even need an engineering degree to run them. 

Therefore, they have become a great way for companies to relieve workers from dangerous and difficult tasks. They make their work easier and allow them to do more creative and productive tasks, like quality control and crafting of industrial parts.

Differences between robots and cobots : pros and cons

ABB cobot for SME

To emphasize the differences between robot and cobot, the abbreviation “cobot” was coined by Kevin Kelly to insist on the collaborative nature of those devices. However, the comparison between cobot and robot is broader.

A robot is an autonomous machine that performs a task without human control. A cobot is an artificially intelligent robot that performs tasks in collaboration with human workers. Thus, the cobot differs from autonomous robots in that it is programmable and works together with the human.

Like industrial robots, many cobots work within the manufacturing industry. For example, cobots can be used to assemble a jet engine or to paint a car. In the automotive industry, cobots are increasingly employed as a mobile and agile tool for the finishing of parts. They are especially helpful in process steps that are dangerous and difficult for humans, such as deburring and polishing.

However, a cobot’s main advantage over an industrial robot is flexibility. The cobot’s human-operated components are programmable and can adapt its movements to changing tasks. For example, during the deburring process, the cobot can change its direction of movement. During the polishing process, the cobot can rotate its brush head. A standard industrial robot would require complex programming of sophisticated control processes.

A robot lacks mobility and flexibility and has almost no perception capabilities other than vision. A cobot, by contrast, is mobile, flexible, and can utilize a variety of sensing technologies. It can sense force and motion provided by workers, and can also be equipped with high-end vision computing. 

But the decisive factors in the debate are the cost and accessibility for modest industrial businesses. Cobots help improve the productivity of SME’s workers by handling precise tasks at low-cost. Workers can deploy and teach cobots their work without external help. They also feel they are more an ally of their work than a threat to their job. They benefit from them to improve their work condition and satisfaction. Even though cobots can be responsible from job losses, it improves overall the quality of existing jobs.

And this not about to end with even more user-friendly and collaborative cobot design !

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