Industry 4.0 digitalization used to mean huge, expensive and cumbersome robotics—but today’s cobots are actually within reach of small manufacturers.

For small- to medium- sized enterprise (SME) manufacturing outfits, any gain in productivity can have a huge impact. Automation offers significant advantages, but many SMEs believe that robotics is out of their reach.

These organizations cannot afford large, complex robots that do not fit within their limited floor space. Complex robots require specialized personnel to program and maintain them, and that is simply too expensive, with a payback period that is too long to justify the investment.

However, as Darrell Adams of Universal Robots willtestify, a new generation of collaborative robots (cobots) is going to change the situation for smaller manufacturers. Not only can collaborative robots help them compete more effectively, they can offer new opportunities for employees, and even improve worker safety. Here are five reasons why SMEs can now consider robotics …

  1. Quick set-up
    Conventional industrial robots can take days or even weeks to be set up well. SMEs simply cannot afford the time and disruption. With collaborative robots, manufacturers or any untrained operator need to be able to unpack the device, mount it, and begin programming simple tasks in a matter of hours. Collaborative robot arms weigh as light as 11kg, and can be set up in less than a day.

  2. Improving the small business culture

As small manufacturing outfits have limited operations personnel, having cobots to automate the monotonous and strenuous tasks gives these employees more freedom to take on better and more exciting roles. SMEs and their employees need not worry about being made redundant as no robots can replace human creativity and critical thinking. Instead, SMEs are elevating employees’ job titles by retraining employees to work alongside robots. 

For example, electronic and entertainment products manufacturer PT JVC Electronics Indonesia (JEIN) deployed seven cobots to increase productivity and achieve consistent quality. The adoption lessened the burden on workers and JEIN witnessed an improvement in production efficiency and stable quality of output. With the move towards automation, employees were redeployed to other processes and operational costs were reduced by more than US$80,000 yearly.

With cobots working alongside humans, work can be made more humanized, establishing a better company culture.

  • Compact, safe and easy to program

Conventional industrial robots require a large, separate enclosure that adds to costs, takes up operational space, and reduces flexibility on the production floor. Management also has to be concerned with the safety risk if someone manages to get inside the enclosure while the robot is activated. 

On the other hand, today’s cobots can work side-by-side with human workers in complementary operations. For example, force-sensing technology means the cobot stops operating if it comes into contact with a human, and 80% of the thousands of cobots in operation worldwide work right beside human operators with no safety guarding (upon risk assessment).

  • Flexible deployment for multiple uses

Dedicated industrial robots can limit SMEs that often have small production batches and require fast change-overs.

In contrast, new cobots are lightweight, space-saving, and easy to redeploy to multiple locations without the need to change the production layout. With the ability to reuse programs for recurring tasks, cobots can support agile manufacturing processes with manageable set-up time and effort that has not been possible before.

  • Fast returns on investment

Any automation investment for SMES must pay for itself as quickly as possible.

Collaborative robots offer advanced robotic automation with none of the traditional added costs associated with robot programming, setup or requirements for dedicated, shielded work cells.

With an average payback period as short as 12 months, robotic automation may finally affordable for SMEs that have a real need to deploy robotic automation.

Adams believes that collaborative robotic technology can be used to benefit all aspects of task-based businesses, regardless of their size. Investment costs can be quickly recovered compared to traditional heavy robotics.