I work for a robotics company. I’m sure you can imagine the rush that comes when the latest predictions about the growth of the market peg the opportunity on the fast-track to exponential growth. After all, it’s how I make my living.
For collaborative robots (cobots), the news seems to be all good. Last fall, a report crossed my desk touting CAGR of 57+ %, resulting in a market size of $4+ billion by 2023; another reported that 150,000 cobots would be deployed worldwide by 2020. Reading these, it’s easy to understand how one might get swept up in the head-spinning optimism. Not me, though. If there’s one lesson I’ve learned in my career in the world of disruptive technology, it’s beware the hype.
That’s not at all to say that I don’t believe in the potential of cobots to transform manufacturing. I’ve written plenty about it – and more importantly – have seen our customers put cobots to work in their operations with great success. More often than not, though, there’s plenty of resistance to the disruptive innovation that cobots bring. And even after the cobots are in place and doing the job well, entrenched thinking throws up roadblocks to expansion.
What is it going to take to close the gap between the hype and what Gartner has labeled as the “trough of disillusionment” for cobots? Manufacturers know they are caught between today’s reality – where productivity is being squelched by one workforce aging out and a labor pool that doesn’t want to work in manufacturing and the pressure to move to the age of digital manufacturing – where machines operate autonomously, powered by distributed decision-making, and products find their way independently through the production process. Manufacturers know that more automation is key to breaking the deadlock between today’s status quo and the promise of Industry 4.0.
Getting more of their operations automated requires evaluating robotics vendors through a dual focus: what can you do for me today and how will you help me be ready for tomorrow? Here are some things to ask and look for to be confident that the cobot solution is one for both:
• Who trains the cobot? A cobot should be easily trained by the people you already have in the factory. No programming. No advanced computer skills. Just show it what needs to be done by moving the “arms”, save that task in its onboard memory and put it to work.
• How quickly can cobots be put to work? Cobots should be easy to deploy – in the existing environment, with no new fixtures or processes required. Tasks should already have been identified for the cobots to be trained on and so the time from out-of-the-box to productivity should be measured in days – not months.
• How many tasks can one cobot do? Unlike traditional automation, where robots are hard-wired and programmed to perform a single task, cobots should be able to perform a wide range of tasks. Advanced sensors and vision systems are critical to this flexibility.
• What kinds of tasks can cobots do? This question is a critical one, especially since the technology behind cobots is so new, most automation engineers haven’t even dreamed yet of the possibilities. Repetitive tasks that are human scale, done at human cadence are a good place to start. Choose a partner who is able to visit the operation and, on-the-spot, point out tasks that the cobot can do. With innovation, it is not enough to sell the promise.
• How much does innovation cost me? Cobots can do more because of software and so just like our smartphones, upgrades should be free. This gives manufacturers a future-proof path to continuous automation innovation.
• How smart is the cobot? As the digitization of manufacturing becomes more and more a reality, smart machines will be essential. The cobot should be able to manage itself on the task assigned – and monitor its own performance. It should be able to manage and monitor the machines it is interacting with and report on key metrics. It should be able to troubleshoot routine problems, resolve them and provide updates as well.
It truly is exciting to see the changes we’re going to experience as manufacturing evolves toward the digital future. And it’s all the more exciting to be a part of the market that’s going to help accelerate that journey.