“In ten years’ time, every human operator will have a human co-worker, a cobot, working next to them.”
Or so they say, but is that true? Will every industrial robot we install in ten years be a cobot? Does it need to be and what the heck is a cobot anyway!
Maybe we should deal with that last question first. It might surprise you to learn that every robot sold today is “collaborative” if it complies with ISO10218 (Part 1), and if it is sold in the UK, it probably will. That’s because the standard allows collaboration through a series of mechanisms; physical separation, monitored speed control, operator control or force/torque limited mechanisms. So in essence very robot Kuka, ABB, etc. install each year is collaborative. But where does the word ‘cobot’ come into it? The term is generally applied with a robot utilizes force/torque monitoring to ensure that it never exerts to much force should it hit anyone as this is limited by the standard. As such this type of robot is seen as truly a collaborative worker robot or cobot.
But are they the next best thing in industrial robotics as some seem to believe? Well, yes and no. Indeed they do allow humans and robots to work together in a way that wasn’t previously possible. However this can only be true if the process the robot is carrying out allows the operator to be close to it. If the overriding system risk assessment, precludes humans from the job, then there is no point wasting money on an expensive cobot when a standard robot (with appropriate fencing) would be a better option.
As I’ve mentioned, a cobot should exert no more force that would cause injury. This in itself is subjective, what causes injury to me might be different to you. Because of this, cobots are speed and weight limited to keep them safe. But this renders them useless for a lot of applications. And if they are suitable, any tooling used has to be designed to be safe as well (no sharp edges or pinch points).
It’s also unlikely that a significant loss of jobs to automation will happen in the next ten or even twenty years. As the outgoing Chief Executive Officer of GE, Jeff Immelt commented recently “I think this notion…that everything is going to be automated is BS”. He believes (as do many others) that we have limited experience of this kind of technological change and “cannot realistically gauge how automation will progress”. But we do know that other significant technology introductions (the steam engine, the computer, etc.) have not led to mass unemployment but a change in the nature of jobs. Undoubtedly it will progress but whether total automation is 5, 10 or 50 years away is unknown (I think it will be towards the latter and perhaps even never). Regardless, we need to start preparing our workforce now by training them to work with robots and delivering the next generations of innovative technologies.