November 18, 2021

What the Tech?!
Cobots are Coming to a Lab Near You!

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Photo Credit:  Marcus Kurle, Wikimedia Commons

Jason Slade
Director of Technical Academic Area

The last few months I have been dreaming about robots. Not just any robots, but collaborative robots. In this recurring nightmare, this collaborative robot (or cobot for short) slowly takes over my life. First, it helps with a few mundane tasks. Next, I assign it more difficult activities or things I don’t want to do. And finally, it just replaces me! I never know what happens next—as I wake up screaming!
I kid! I kid! Well, maybe I am only half joking! Cobots are the next evolution of robots in manufacturing and we will hopefully see them creep into our everyday lives. But let me back up.
Manufacturing is experiencing what is considered the fourth industrial revolution. Think of all of the things you have been buying off of Amazon during the pandemic. Every item was produced through a manufacturing operation streamlined to increase speed and improve efficiency, resulting in higher profit margins.
This desire for profitability drives “revolutions” or mass changes on the factory floor. Previous revolutions included the dawn of mechanization and steam power, followed by mass production, automation in the 1980s, and now to the idea of “smart” manufacturing. This new wave of manufacturing consists of the Internet of things (IoT):  sensors, monitoring systems, 3D printing, cybersecurity, collaborative robots and more.
Collectively, these technologies are known as “Industry 4.0” and manufacturers are jumping in with both feet. Why? Because if they don’t, another company will and soak up the profit margins, leaving those who stood idle by the wayside.
But the technology that is really drawing interest is the cobot. Traditional robots have been around for decades. However, robots are dangerous! In a manufacturing facility, robots operate behind screens, guard rails and have floor scanners all for the purpose of shutting down the process immediately if a human encroaches. This is due to the fact that robots don’t stop. They are designed to go from point A to point B and will go through anything in their way.
I have heard horror stories of robots going through pick-up trucks in auto assembly plants due to the robot programmer screwing up the coordinates. They are highly effective but are meant to be left alone (much like dragons).
Cobots on the other hand, are designed to work with a human. They have sensors that detect changes in current or acceleration, and react accordingly. You can think of these as “bump” sensors that detect or feel objects in their pathway, which then stops or slows down the cobot.  So if a human walks into the cobot’s path, a brush against the robotic arm will result in the cobot pausing or stopping. This drastically reduces the potential of a human getting injured, or worse, killed.
Because of this safety feature, the cobot is perfect to work side-by-side with humans, hence the name “collaborative”. With the shortage of employees, companies are looking for labor alternatives and cobots are great candidates to fill this gap. Starting at just over $30k (which is “cheap” for new automation), the cobot can work on a manufacturing process right next to a human.
For example, a local company here in TC was sorting parts by hand, picking up the tiny components, and then putting them on a grid for later assembly. This was time consuming and required two people to complete the task. With labor shortages, a cobot was brought in to do this work. The cobot now performs the sort and the two people are used in other stages of the operation. In another example, a part was washed multiple times after being machined. This job is tedious for a human but it’s necessary. Swapping a cobot in its place freed the employee up to do other higher skilled or more needed tasks.
Did the cobot replace the human? No. It freed the employee up to do higher skilled tasks and also created a new job as a cobot programmer. Unlike a traditional robot, the cobot can be reprogrammed relatively easily and repurposed for another job. Small companies may move their cobot around two or three times a shift.
This is not the case for traditional robots that are designed to stay in one place and do the same task over and over again. The programming of the cobot can be learned in a short time and requires only basic electrical or controls knowledge and some training on the programming interface used by that brand of cobot. But once learned, the programmer can implement sophisticated robot functions and sequencing.
NMC is fortunate to be the recipient of an Industry 4.0 grant focused on this technology. This grant is a partnership with local manufacturers, MIWorks!, Traverse Connect, and others and will result in a new learning lab in the Parsons Stulen Building on Aero Park Campus. A Universal Robot (UR) cobot will be part of the lab and allow students to learn the basics of cobot operation, safety, programming, and more. This lab will come online in late Spring 2022 and be open for training and employer use. The cobot will also be integrated into our EET 233 and EET 234 - PLC application courses.
Don’t be surprised if these cobots transition from the manufacturing floor and start entering day-to-day life, including working at McDonald’s and assisting in the service industry. They are here to stay and the “Industry 4.0” technology used to produce them will only make them cheaper. Soon, you will be having the same dream as me!