From their original conception in 1997,cobots—easy-to-program machines that work alongside humans—are ready to boost smart automation.

Manufacturers that have implemented industrial automation with collaborative robots (cobots) have rejoiced the prospect of being able to use a robot without any external safety measures such as fences (upon risk assessment) or the flexible deployment of robots.

While these factors are certainly a game-changer, there is another more tangible aspect that cobots have brought to the factory floor; its ease of use.

Looking back, one thing has stayed consistent in the robotics industry: it takes a well-trained person to properly program a robotic or motion control solution. Even when robot and motion manufacturers announce new setup wizards or some other shortcuts with simplified programming, the fact remains that someone with little or no training cannot walk up to the controller, and within minutes, have a usable program written and running with minimal instructions.

Configuring traditional robotic and motion control solutions is complex enough to leave non-programmers in despair, much less to successfully write a functional program. Regardless of the format or the programming language, if a multi-axis motion solution or robot was sold to customers who did not have any prior experience, it is essential for the customer to attend factory training or have an engineer guide them.

Making robots easy to program

For comparison, let us step back and look at another software intensive technology, the cell phone. Twenty years ago, a brand-new phone was accompanied by a paper manual that weighed as much as the phone. Yet, this was for a phone that only stored phone numbers and made calls. Today, despite purchasing a handheld device that is vastly more capable than the PCs in that era, a quick start guide is barely provided. Why? Because the software and the interface allow users to access all that power intuitively.

Nonetheless, this does not suggest that programming a robot with multiple logic threads and error handling is something that can be distilled down to the same level as learning how to play simple mobile games. However, for the basics, there is absolutely no reason why it should take two weeks of factory training to learn how to program a robot to perform a simple machine tending solution. 

One forward-thinking person who agreed with this premise and took action was Esben Østergaard, a PhD student. Esben wanted to develop robotic technology that could address real-world production requirements without the traditional headaches, and make a scalable solution with a lower cost of entry that small- to medium- sized enterprises (SMEs) can easily adopt. This was the birth of Universal Robots and its Cobots that are not only safe, but intuitive.

Anyone with the skills to use a smartphone, can most likely figure out how to use a cobot. This single feature brought about quite a number of significant benefits. Although manufacturers were not confident in leveraging the new robotic technology, the awareness about the benefits of cobots was gradually rising in Asia at the time. The global automotive manufacturer, Bajaj Auto Ltd, became India’s first cobot user in 2010. Its employees highlighted that operating advanced robotic technology had become easy.

For a start, programming cost adds to the upfront cost of a new robotic implementation. By minimizing programming time, it is a direct improvement to return on investment (ROI). Ease of programming also means that less technical support is required, and employee(s) previously doing the automated task can be repurposed into robot deployers. An easily-programmable system can, therefore, act as a labor multiplier.

Easily serviced

Given enough time, any system will need troubleshooting, debugging or fixing at some point. The loss of production caused by this downtime can detract from ROI, and often cause intangible drawbacks such as frustrated technicians. An easily serviceable solution can reduce downtime and improve ease of recovery.

Cost of training (for both programming and maintenance) can add up to a hefty sum if systems are complex. An intuitively-programmable and easily serviceable platform mitigates this ramp up time, and greatly reduces the total cost of ownership of the system.

Similar to how internet has given a voice to anyone with a mobile device, the ease of use of cobots enables flexible automation in companies ranging from startups to SMEs to Fortune 500 manufacturers, fueling the next revolution in manufacturing.

In fact, manufacturers in Asia are slowly scaling up by investing in smart automation. Cobots will continue to help manufacturers thrive in the Asian industries.