September 6, 2022
By Kristian Hulgard, OnRobot
The Collaborative Era in industrial automation is characterized by affordability, ease of use and multi-purpose, flexible manufacturing solutions. Collaborative automation has been transformative, particularly for small and midsize enterprises (SMEs), since it virtually eliminates the costs and complexity traditionally associated with industrial automation.
Companies of all sizes have enthusiastically adopted collaborative automation, enabling it to become the fastest growing segment of the global industrial robotics market. But could this paradigm changing new era of automation be slowed down by a shortage of human workers? Potentially.
Companies considering the introduction of collaborative systems but concerned about a lack of skilled labor to deploy and manage them need to look for collaborative solutions that enable quick and deployment by end users of all skill levels. This means choosing collaborative solutions that combine the right mix of usability, reliability, and application-readiness.
The labor crisis
These are challenging times for the manufacturing sector. Labor shortages, global supply chain issues, and macroeconomic uncertainties are stretching budgets, business continuity, and production capacity to the limit.
A 2021 report by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute found that 500,000 jobs remain unfilled in U.S. manufacturing alone. Manufacturers also reported that it is 36% harder to find talent today than it was in 2018, leading the report’s authors to conclude that 2.1 million manufacturing jobs could be left unfilled by 2030.
These labor shortages and skills gaps exist on all levels, from operatives to production managers. The crisis extends beyond the manufacturing sector, with automation integrators and distributors also struggling to find and retain staff – making it difficult for collaborative installations to keep up with demand.
The Collaborative Era in industrial robotics began about 15 years ago with the launch of the world’s first collaborative robot. Today, there are many collaborative hardware and software offerings from collaborative robots (cobots) and lightweight industrial robot arms to grippers, sanders, cameras, sensors and other tools to remote diagnostics and data analytics software. Today, even traditional robot companies are building collaborative automation.
To really understand the impact of collaborative automation, let’s take a quick look at the B.C. era (Before Collaboration, that is). This is a time when automation was the sole preserve of industrial giants with massive budgets and deep reservoirs of in-house talent to call on. Automation was cumbersome, inflexible, expensive, and difficult to program. Deployment time was measured in months and years. These solutions excel in low mix/high volume environments – even as many manufacturers make the transition to customized, high mix/low volume production.
In the B.C. Era, through no fault of their own, small and mid-sized enterprises (SMEs) were bypassed by an automation sector that focused exclusively on the requirements and concerns of large companies.
The rise of collaborative automation with its user-friendly tooling, and intuitive programming software and methods has changed all that. Collaborative systems score high on usability, evening out the technological playing field between SMEs and the behemoths of industry. Collaborative automation deployment times are measured in hours and days, not months. Thanks to their in-built safety features, collaborative automation can be safely deployed next to humans (following a risk assessment) without physical fences or guarding.
Moreover, collaborative automation is ideally suited to high-mix, low-volume production because of its flexibility and ease of deployment – companies can reprogram collaborative systems to handle a new product in a matter of hours.
For SMEs, this provides the benefits of industrial grade automation, but without all the programming complexity. This empowers SMEs to program and deploy automation themselves, without having to bring in expensive integrators every time – if there are any integrators available, of course.
But not all collaborative automation is the same. So, what features should you look out for when evaluating collaborative systems?
Whether you’re a manufacturer or an integrator, it is important to be able to deploy automation quickly. This reduces deployment-related downtime and reduces Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) for your automation.
Usability is critical. Make sure to research the programming interfaces and methods provided. For example, some cobot systems can be programmed manually by moving the arm in space and following up with a few simple steps on a teach pendant, laptop, or other device. Everyone benefits from simple and intuitive programming methods and interfaces – especially those with no previous robotics experience. Automation that’s easy to use is automation that can easily be re-deployed in-house.
Seek collaborative automation offerings that incorporate free online training and ‘How To’-type resources. Even better is if these resources can be accessed on the shopfloor during a deployment.
Like any other type of industrial automation, collaborative automation has to be reliable, so look for offerings that provide you with software tools you need to ensure reliable operations. For example, there are software tools, specially designed for collaborative applications, that provide remote monitoring, data analytics, and application performance insights. Look for software that provides a measure of Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE), for example, as this can provide the insights you need to how well your collaborative automation is performing, optimize movement, and maximize production. Meanwhile, remote monitoring can alert you to any issues within your collaborative cell, minimizing your response time to any issues.
The most important trend in collaborative automation today is the rise of the collaborative application solution. These are complete, off-the-shelf systems that provide all the hardware, software, tools, and accessories required to take on specific applications, such as palletizing, sanding, material handling, or machine tending.
As soon as companies have identified a task for automation, they can get all the tooling, accessories, and software they need to get their collaborative application up and running.
This trend combines all that is good about collaborative automation – usability, affordability, cost savings, and flexibility – and presents it to you in a single, off-the-shelf package that’s accessible to all end users, even those with no prior robotics experience.
Select the right application kit – consisting of end-of-arm tooling, accessories, and the software to tie it all together – and you can quickly switch the entire system to work on a different application. For example, a collaborative system that’s used for machine tending in the morning could be redeployed on inspection in the afternoon, and then put on ‘lights out’ palletizing operations overnight. Unlike conventional automation, which tends to be fixed permanently in place (along with permanent) safety fencing, cobots have a light footprint and can easily be transported from one location in your facility to another.
About the author: Kristian Hulgard is general manager – Americas at OnRobot.