Rise of the Cobots Revolutionising the SME Manufacturing Sector

Robotic automation, once the domain of large manufacturing companies, is now within the reach of many smaller businesses – a factor that is set to revolutionise the SME manufacturing sector. Trevor Bingham, Business Development Manager at Scotland’s SAP Business One partner, FUEL – High Performance IT, discusses the rise of collaborative robots or ‘’cobots”  and how they are leading to increased productivity, reduced downtime and lower operating costs.

Recent developments in artificial intelligence, computer vision and motion-sensing capabilities, are creating a new generation of robots known as collaborative robotics, or “co-bots”. As co-bots become more and more common place, they’re having a distinctive impact on “Discrete Manufacturing”, especially for small and medium size manufacturers.

Industries such as the car, furniture, toy, phone and aircraft industry use Co-bots to enhance productivity, quality, and efficiency to industrial applications. Multiple sensors make it safe for co-bots to work side-by-side with their human counterparts and many industry analysts are predicting a massive growth for co-bots over the next decade.

Robots have been in use since the likes of the Japanese Car manufacturers introduced them back in the early 1960s. Assigned tasks that were repetitive, onerous, or dangerous, they have struggled to take on tasks requiring high precision and dexterity. Robots were programmed to perform simple routine tasks on the factory floor, while the more complex and often random tasks, were left to humans.

One of the best known Achilles heels for manufacturing in this country and indeed most of Europe, is the issue of rising labour costs as a result, manufacturers need to find a way to reduce their labour costs, while increasing productivity. Some experts are saying that Co-bots can boost productivity, with the same number of workers and in some cases, replace factory floor workers altogether.

Co-bots boost productivity because they are not only cheaper and faster than the standard industry robots, but they’re also much smarter. While industry robots are typically enclosed in a cage on the factory floor for safety to factory floor workers, co-bots have many sensors and are made with the minimum of sharp cornered edges and often of softer materials. The sensors are placed strategically to help prevent accidents or crushing incidents, making it safe for co-bots to co-exist alongside humans on the factory floor. They are simply designed so as to insure human-robot collaboration.

Co-bots also have what’s called force-limited joints which are designed to react quickly when an external force is sensed. With these type of joints, co-bots have more “human” capabilities, like dexterity, memory, sensing, and trainability. This results in co-bots being able to do more jobs, like testing, inspections, picking and packaging.

As co-bots become more common place alongside humans, the SME manufacturing sector is set to revolutionise itself. Eventually Low cost plug-and-play robotic tools, will find themselves more and more placed into the Manufacturing process. A recent study on human-machine productivity, conducted by MIT at a BMW factory, found that a team of humans and robots were more productive working together than either humans or robots working alone.

An increase in productivity leading to reduced downtime, has an immediate effect in lowering the bottom line costs for manufacturers.

PwC reports, from a worldwide perspective, that more than half of all SME manufacturers are currently using some form of robotics technology. These numbers are expected to jump in the coming decade, as smaller manufacturers rush to adopt co-bot technology, and unlock new productivity pathways. Manufacturers that invest now in the next generation of robots, linked to their ERP systems, stand to gain a critical competitive edge.

Collaborative robots are equipped with far more sensors than their assembly line counterparts. These sensors generate constant data, that needs to be quickly transmitted to the cloud or their “In-Memory” ERP system for, instant processing and provide management with dynamic reporting to keep ahead of the competition!

Any questions? IT Fuel will be exhibiting at the SMAS National Manufacturing Conference on 30 May 2018.