Published on 16 September, 2019 in Flexible Manufacturing
In today’s ever-changing world, manufacturers are facing increasingly heavy demands. Factories worldwide are having to produce a high mix, low volume of products to meet customer needs, whilst also dealing with shorter product life cycles and shortages of labour. To remain competitive, manufacturers must be sufficiently agile to cope with rapid changes in lines and layouts.
One way of achieving this agility is through the use of collaborative robots (‘cobots’) that can work safely with people in the same environment. A new generation of cobots is emerging as classical industrial robots continue to evolve in response to the needs of Industry 4.0. In applications where flexibility (rather than maximum production speed) is key, cobots are now filling the gap in the robotics market with their extremely user-friendly software tools and integrated sensory functions. These now include machine vision systems, location capabilities and integration with warehouse systems.
Let cobots take the strain
So, how can cobots make a difference to your production line? One important aspect is their growing strength. For example, even lightweight cobots such as Omron’s Techman TM14M can lift goods of up to 14 kg. Industrial cobots need to comply with the ISO 10218 safety standard, which defines the interactions between robots and people. Due to their strength and lifting capabilities, they are effectively becoming team members in production and logistics environments. This harmonisation and collaboration of people and machines brings innovation to the factory floor.
Cobots can be deployed in a wide range of applications, including production, testing, quality control, packaging and palletising, and intralogistics (which involves optimising the integrated movement of materials and goods and the management of the information flow). For example, cobots can support your personnel in any assembly processes that rely on precision and repeatability (e.g. they can apply adhesives and seals with simultaneous quality control). They’re perfectly suited for automating complex quality tests. As they can do heavy lifting, they can also be used, with proper safety equipment, as palletizers.
Cobots and mobile robots
The new generation of cobots can be easily integrated with mobile robots. This cooperation is made easier due to the low weight of the latest robots, as well as the possibility of building mobile platforms on mobile robots, such as Omron’s LD – our autonomous, intelligent vehicle. Cobots can now be a natural part of a flexible and constantly evolving production environment which can handle the re-deployment of machines, line changeovers and conveyors.
For example, cobots installed on mobile robots can become elements of innovative logistic solutions. They can provide complete sub-assemblies and semi-finished products for assembly stations, and finished products to be placed in stock or quality control stations. Cobots can therefore complement and augment people’s work in many discrete manufacturing processes.
Cobots are starting to help manufacturers to become more innovative and competitive. They are highly versatile and can carry out tasks performed so far only by standard robots, all easily configurable by local engineering staff. In a much easier implementation where there is less need for typical robot security measures, cobots can provide a far more flexible operation, leading to a very high return on investment. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that forecasts suggest that they will form a much higher proportion of the total number of industrial robots in the future.
And that’s not all. If the capabilities of machine vision combined with artificial intelligence are added into the mix, the possibilities are almost limitless. A cobot can have a built-in intelligent vision system which provides a whole range of visual functions, such as totem pairing, object positioning, barcode identification and colour differentiation. You can use hand gestures to guide the robot and change the degree of freedom of this function according to different conditions.
A great example of this is our interactive table-tennis playing robot, Forpheus, which shows the possibilities provided by combining artificial intelligence (AI) with cobots. Forpheus demonstrates human-machine collaboration by combining vision with robotics and AI at the machine level. It can play an interactive game and can identify table tennis balls in a 3D space in an identical way to a person’s eyes. It can also evaluate its opponent and judge their ability level – and its high-speed robotic arm moves in response to its AI controller, which predicts the opponent’s play.
We provide cobots that can be used for many different applications, such as electronics assembly, product testing and inspection. They will increase manufacturing flexibility and will boost the productivity and quality of production lines for customers in the automotive and electronic industry sectors. Our cobots will also be used for various material handling operations within a broad range of manufacturing industries, to achieve an innovative manufacturing environment in which people and machines work in harmony. The combination of AI with vision systems and mobile cobots opens up even more exciting possibilities for new industrial applications in the future.