Productivity Increases When Robots Work Alongside People

Collaborative robotic technology is emerging as a tool for picking and other tasks, and the demand in this market is predicted to continue its exponential growth.
* By Sheryl S. Jackson *

The collaborative robot, or cobot, market is predicted to grow by more than 60 percent this year, according to research by Interact Analysis. The industry was worth less than $400 million last year but will grow to nearly $600 million in 2018. The growth is fueled by the wider availability of collaborative robots from mainstream industrial robot vendors, greater awareness among small- to medium-sized companies and increasing adoption by major manufacturers.

Although the earliest adoption of collaborative robots occurred in manufacturing, the advantages of collaborative robots is leading to greater interest from, and deployment by, members of the material handling industry for logistics and supply chain. The expansion beyond manufacturing to include warehouses and distribution centers will contribute to the growth of the collaborative robot market. In fact, cobots are now the fastest growing segment of industrial automation, expected to jump tenfold to 34 percent of all industrial robot sales by 2025, according to the International Federation of Robotics.

“The idea for collaborative robots has been around since the 1990s but it was not until about 10 years ago that the first commercially successful cobot was available,” said Stuart Shepherd, regional sales director—Americas at MHI member Universal Robots, which recently celebrated the sale of its 25,000th cobot. “It has taken time for the standards to evolve and for companies to advance technologically to adopt cobots.”

There are a growing number of small to medium-sized companies choosing cobots to supplement their workforce, said Shepherd. “We used to see only large companies investing in robots, but the lower cost of today’s collaborative robots makes them affordable for smaller companies,” he said.

Designed to work with humans, cobots can take over repetitive tasks and free employees to handle tasks that require more “thinking,” points out Shepherd. For example, the robot can fold boxes, pick items or pack boxes, freeing an employee to handle picking or packing fragile items, hard to handle items or complex orders.

Some of the benefits of assigning repetitive, boring tasks to cobots are increased employee satisfaction, reduction in repetitive motion injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome, and a more efficient workforce, said Shepherd. “Collaborative robots are an important tool to help people work faster, not a replacement for people.”

In addition to picking, tasks that cobots can handle include applying labels and tape, case packing, box palletizing, unpacking boxes and filling containers. When cobots take over repetitive tasks, front-line employees’ fatigue is reduced, and turnover is minimized—a critical benefit when good employees are hard to find.

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