Robots are being used in the automotive industry ever since the 1960s. But recently there has been much talk about Cobots or collaborative robots. So, what are Cobots? How are they different to the older generation of industrial robots? How are they relevant to the changing face of automotive manufacturing?
Challenges with earlier generation of industrial robots
Protection (Required to be installed inside a safety cage)
Large Foot print (Take up a lot of space)
Safety of the worker
While they found application in various use cases within automotive manufacturing, the earlier generation of robots are restricted to specific tasks of welding or lifting. Moreover, most of these bulky robots are placed inside cages for safety reasons and are capable of performing only one specific task.
Cobots are designed with the intelligence to work alongside human workers. For example, a collaborative industrial robotic arm is a fusion of different sensors that sense the surrounding environment, human presence and human touch. Cobots have been made possible because of advancements in tactile sensors, vision technologies and machine learning.
Wherever they have found application in the automotive industry, Cobots have helped to make the working environment safer and reduced the space required for a robot to work. Space saved on the manufacturing floor can be utilized to add more production lines or assembly lines to increase productivity.
Artificial intelligence & machine learning are also adding substantial value to collaborative robotics. Recent innovations include transfer learning. Machine learning integrated with robotics essentially allows the Cobot to learn from humans or other robots. With such innovations and advancements, the basic need to program robots for specific task is very soon expected to be a thing of the past. Robots of the near future will be able to learn from actions and activities of humans or fellow robots. However, in terms of accuracy and productivity, they are expected to surpass humans.
The older generation of robots were designed to service specific application need. Cobots of the near future can be used for a multitude of applications. In the past, if a new robot was installed, overall productivity used to take a hit in initial runs. This was because of slow learning, high degree of customisation and coding required to get the robot to be productive for a specific task. In comparison, cobots learn to performing tasks on their own and in a fraction of the time required to program the earlier generation of industrial robots.
Many leading auto manufacturing companies such as Daimler, BMW and Volkswagen are using cobots in their manufacturing units. Cobots are no longer confined to welding and painting but have many more applications. Cobots are used for assembly, machine tending, pick and place, screwing, riveting, and sealant. They have found applications in engine development, chassis, electronics, safety & braking, body works, finishing, seating, drivetrain, and more.
While cobots offer reasonable delta in performance, application and safety compared to older generation industrial robots, we believe that what we see today is only just the tip of the iceberg. Exponential technology innovation in artificial intelligence, sensors, vision systems, voice recognition, computing, materials, blockchain, virtual and augmented reality technologies, additive manufacturing and connectivity are likely to result in rapid advancement in the price vs performance of cobots.
It is an interesting time for the Automotive Industry. Automotive manufacturing finds itself in a flux. Materials, parts and components that make a vehicle of today are changing. And so is the manufacturing process. Manufacturing facilities of the near future are likely to look very different from the ones of today. For the automotive industry, robotics advancements such as cobots, seems to be happening at just the right time.
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Video courtesy Fanuc