Maximize Cobots By Avoiding Six Mistakes
EP Editorial Staff | April 10, 2023
Benefit from your cobot investment with some advanced planning and application analysis.
By Sean Akell, Motion Ai
The introduction and implementation of collaborative robots in factory settings over the past decade has been a boon for manufacturers of all sizes. Compared with their industrial robot counterparts, cobots (collaborative robots) are typically smaller, more flexible, easier to program, and safer to operate around their human coworkers. These advantages have led each year to cobots increasing their share of the global robot market. The flexibility of cobots means they can be used in hundreds of different applications, including assembly, machine tending, dispensing, welding, and palletizing.
Despite their many advantages, some mistakes can still be made when implementing a new cobot in your facility. Here are some of the common errors people make and what can be done to fix them.
Mistake #1: Choosing a complicated starting task
While collaborative robots can perform complex tasks such as quality inspection, welding, and polishing, it usually makes sense to assign your first cobot a simple task. Choose a manual process in your production line that will be fairly easy to automate and that can relieve your workers from a dull job or repetitively performing a single action daily.
Machine tending is one of the best starting tasks to choose for your cobot. A cobot can easily tend multiple machines and free your employees for more valuable functions. Whether it’s a CNC machine, injection molding, or stamping, a cobot can improve your speed and process quality while reducing the risk of injuries for your workers. By choosing a simple task for the first cobot application, you and your employees will learn how easy it is to program (and reprogram) the unit and start seeing a return on your investment.
Mistake #2: Not having a clear plan
Many companies may be intrigued by the technology and decide to take the plunge and purchase a cobot, despite not having an implementation plan. This is the wrong approach and could result in your cobot sitting idle on the floor.
Instead, identify the low-hanging fruit in your production line (repetitive or simplistic tasks) and develop a strategy for implementation. Look at your inputs and outputs (how many parts per hour are produced), look at physical constraints, and then design the layout for your cobot cell. This approach will give you the best chance of success for your first cobot and all subsequent units.
Mistake #3: Choosing the wrong end-of-arm tooling
Collaborative robots are powerful automation tools but are only as effective as their end-of-arm tooling. Each application is unique and may require a different end effector to get the job done. If you think the only option for your cobot arm is a two-finger electric gripper, you’d be incorrect. There are now hundreds of tooling options. In addition to electric and pneumatic grippers of all shapes and sizes, there are vacuum grippers for large or porous items and even soft grippers for delicate objects.
If you are unaware of these options, you may be disqualifying some applications out of hand when they could be a perfect fit. Some applications will have obvious solutions, such as using a vacuum gripper to pick up boxes, while others will be more subtle. For this reason, it makes sense to consult with your local distributor or integrator to imagine application fits beyond the obvious. They will have the experience to know which tools are right for the job, and many can even design custom solutions if off-the-shelf products don’t exist.
Mistake #4: Not considering safety
Cobots have reduced the hazard of robots working next to humans. However, this doesn’t mean they are completely safe in every situation. While the arm itself may be safe, what about the payload at the end of it? Or the tool? For example, if the cobot uses a knife in a cutting application, it can no longer be considered inherently safe.
Does this mean you should forget about implementing cobots altogether? Of course not. It means you need to assess each application regarding safety. For some applications, you’ll quickly find that there are no issues and you can proceed. Some will require devices such as area scanners or light curtains to limit the robot’s range or speed. For others, it may take a bit more work.
When performing a cobot risk assessment, properly evaluate all task aspects and judge its overall safety. Try your best to plan for expected and unexpected events when doing so. Lastly, make sure your assessment includes everyone who will use the robot. Your workers have a unique perspective on the task and may think of something you overlooked. This leads us to our next mistake.
Mistake #5: Not including your employees in the implementation phase
Cobots are still a relatively new technology, so there can be questions about their place on a factory floor. Your staff may be concerned that the cobots will replace them, even though that’s rarely the case. Quite the opposite, in fact. A typical
installation will make employees’ jobs easier. That is why it’s always a good idea to involve employees, who will be working with the cobot, in the initial planning. You’ll want to clarify any misconceptions and explain that the device will handle certain tasks and free workers to focus elsewhere.
Once workers know the parameters under which they’ll work with the cobot, they will be much more likely to have a positive attitude toward implementation. Workers may even uncover applications that you had not considered. This will lead to a synergistic relationship, increasing production and speeding up return on your investment.
Mistake #6: Ignoring hazards in the work area
While cobots typically cost less than their industrial robot counterparts, they are not an insignificant investment. Therefore, you should protect them from environmental harm as much as possible. If your cobot will work with harsh materials such as cutting fluids or corrosive coolants—which can destroy rubber seals—cover it with a protective suit. This is also true for other tough environments, e.g., shielding the robot from metal dust. Protecting the unit will extend its life and help you get the most out of your investment, so it’s worth a little extra time to get it right at the start.
Collaborative robots have been a game changer for manufacturers of all sizes over the past decade. Their smaller footprint, flexibility, and ease of use have made them the choice for anyone looking to automate dull, dirty, and dangerous tasks while improving quality and efficiency. If you know what to look for, you can avoid the pitfalls listed and be on your way to successful implementation. EP
Sean Akell has more than 18 years of experience in the automation industry, working in various roles, including customer service, applications engineering, inside sales, and marketing at Motion Ai (formerly Axis New England). He has been writing about collaborative robots since their introduction to the North American market. For more information, visit ai.motion.com.