Unlocking Operational Efficiency with Collaborative Automation

Peer Robotics
7 min readJun 6, 2023

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It’s no secret that the integration of robotics and automation is a transformational force for manufacturers around the world. As industries transform and automate an increasing number of generic tasks rather than isolated specific tasks, the concept of collaborative automation has proved itself as a game-changer, shifting the paradigm from the traditional approach of robots operating in isolation to collaborative robots (cobots) working in tandem with humans.

But what exactly is collaborative automation? How is it transforming factory floors? How can manufacturers approach it to add value to their processes? These are just some of the questions we’re hoping to answer in this article.

What is Collaborative Automation?

As the name suggests, collaborative automation enables robots and people to work together collaboratively. It includes both, physical collaboration in which humans and robots share the same physical environment and jointly perform tasks, and cognitive collaboration, where robots complement humans by providing physical support, information, guidance, or decision support.

Collaborative automation is driven by advancements in robotics technology, including the incorporation of state-of-the-art sensors, and the implementation of machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI). These allow cobots to perceive their surroundings, understand human intentions, and adapt their behavior accordingly. Technology has also played an indispensable role in collaborative robots by enabling advanced safety features such as force sensors and collision avoidance systems, thereby ensuring that humans can share the same physical environment as cobots.

How it Began

By now, you may be wondering what’s the big deal about robots that can work with humans, and whether it’s something you should explore for your factory floor.

After all, robots have been around for decades. The first industrial robot is attributed to George Devol, an American inventor known for developing “Unimate,” the very first programmable robot, in the 1950s. The first Unimate robot was sold and installed in General Motors’ New Jersey plant in 1961, where it lifted and stacked hot pieces of die-cast metal. Devol’s Unimate patent is prolific for setting the very foundation for robotics, and revolutionizing factory automation.

Unimate is known as the world’s first programmable industrial robot

Source: IEEE Spectrum via Bob Malone

Robots have evolved drastically since Unimate. But until the last decade or so, most of them presented a multitude of challenges that made industrial robots viable only for a small percentage of the manufacturing industry.

One of the most alarming setbacks of the traditional industrial robot is its lack of safety features. A study found that in the US alone, there were 41 robot-related fatalities from 1992 to 2017 — and that’s just what was recorded in the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries. Because these robots are large, powerful, and have no in-built safety features, it is paramount to take external safety measures. These robots are usually caged or fenced off, or deployed with technologies such as area scanners to monitor the immediate area around the robot and slow it down when a person or object is in the defined area. This means you are not only investing in the hardware of the robot but also additional hardware for the robot. Not to mention, this would require a large amount of valuable shop floor space.

Complexity is another problematic area for industrial robots. They usually require a robotics expert with specialized skills in robot programming languages to define precise movements, tasks, and interaction points so the robot correctly follows a pre-planned path. The robot’s hardware and software may also need to be aligned with specific production requirements, making integration a complex, time-consuming process. The workforce will also need to be trained in understanding how to monitor the robot safely and effectively, thereby needing additional time and resources. All in all, this means you’re often looking at a considerable amount of downtime and process disruption.

Combined, these factors have led to a space and time-consuming deployment, which — on top of everything else — is also inflexible. Once installed, they are fixed in place, so relocating or repurposing them becomes a feat. Even once moved, expert technicians are needed to reconfigure the robot for a new task. All in all, this poses a challenge when manufacturers need to alter their production lines to accommodate changes in product design, workflow, or manufacturing processes.

Process Transformation with Human-Robot Collaboration

While industrial robots have their place in manufacturing processes, their limitations make them difficult to adopt for businesses without adequate time, space, expertise, and finances.

Enter the collaborative robot.

As discussed earlier, cobots are built on the concept of human-robot collaboration (HRC). Unlike their predecessors, they are compact and loaded with internal safety features, which means they can safely work beside people on the shop floor without needing external fixtures, scanners, etc. (subject to application risk assessment).

The best cobots are also low-code or no-code, making them easy to deploy by anyone — even those who have never programmed a robot before. For example, our collaborative autonomous mobile robots (AMR) learn instantly from humans via haptic feedback, which means a person merely has to apply pressure and push it along the desired path for the robot to understand where it needs to go. This makes our robots easy to deploy by those who know your factory processes best: your frontline workers.

The best-in-class cobots are no-code, like the RM-250 from Peer Robotics, making it easy for anyone to get them up and running quickly

Being so light and easily installable, cobots are flexible enough to move to new applications or processes as business needs evolve. They are ideal for lower payloads and high mix/low volume facilities and present an ideal entry point for SMEs to automate with advanced technology.

The most common type of robot that comes to most people’s minds when they think about cobots is probably collaborative robot arms. These are designed to mimic the human arm and usually use to automate pick-and-place operations such as machine tending, palletizing, and various other assembly line applications. The industry has exploded over the last decade, with multiple cobot arms in the market today.

A more recent advancement in collaborative automation is the collaborative mobile robot we covered earlier. Used to streamline material movement across factories, these AI-powered robots can be deployed by virtually anyone, eliminating the need for external support. Collaborative mobile robots can be deployed with little to no changes to your existing production layout, which means you can adapt them to your needs, unlike many other robots that still require structural changes. They are revolutionizing material movement and robotics by overcoming the barriers of cost and complexity associated with prevalent robots in the industry.

Adding Value with Cobots

Researchers from McKinsey & Company suggest that one of the most vital factors to consider while exploring an automation solution is how to optimize the value captured from automation in the long term. They suggest that companies should gauge where they are on the spectrum of automation maturity, and accordingly determine the most suitable automation techniques to deploy. At the same time, manufacturers should strive to move along the spectrum to capture more value as they reach higher levels of maturity.

Any automation solution should always look at capturing as much value as possible in the long-term

Source: McKinsey & Company

As you can see, collaborative automation and AI are seen as part of the greatest stages of automation maturity, signifying high-to-best-in-class facilities where manufacturers have implemented the latest and most relevant technologies across the complete spectrum of their operations to capture the full potential of automation.

Wherever you may be on the spectrum of automation maturity, however, it’s vital not to lose sight of the ultimate goal of value creation. McKinsey suggests beginning with conducting a comprehensive activity inventory to understand the organization’s operations, even creating a heat map to highlight where automation potential is high. To ensure a broader approach, you can then reimagine processes by envisioning how automation can optimize the entire workflow as opposed to individual activities. Based on this, assess the feasibility and advantages of implementing automation changes, weighing technological readiness and expected benefits. Finally, prioritize and transform the processes with the highest potential. This calculated approach ensures that you consider various factors and that your automation investment delivers maximum impact for the longest possible period.

A Note on Safety

The International Organization for Standardization, or ISO, has established standards to assess the safety of cobots. Robots that comply with these standards, thus, are safe to use in theory.

However, please note that safety is task-dependent, and — just like with any other industrial equipment or machinery — end users must conduct application risk assessments to ascertain whether their collaborative automation solution is indeed compliant with the legal requirements for workplace health and safety as stipulated by the country in which they operate. A risk assessment would cover the entire application, including not just the robot but also the workspace, additional tools, and even elements such as cabling and lighting that could compromise safety.

Conclusion

Automation for the sake of it is never a good idea. Instead, it’s important to determine how you can derive the most value from a particular solution. Collaborative automation is increasingly popular as it draws on the belief that humans and machines each have their strengths, and the greatest value is created when they are given the work that they are truly suitable for. Cobots also provide an entry point for small and medium-sized manufacturers to adopt advanced Industry 4.0 technologies — or even Industry 5.0 solutions, in the case of our collaborative mobile robot — because of being compact, simple to deploy, and flexible to re-deploy as your needs evolve. Collaborative automation is an approach that undoubtedly paves the way for operational efficiency and improved competitiveness, and also can be harnessed by manufacturers for the ultimate value creation.

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