Let us begin with the definition of “Cobots”, a word which stands for “Collaborative Robots”. Almost self-explanatory, this term clearly defines the first difference between normal robotic autonomous machines and their collaborative versions. While the firsts are meant to replace human labor in manufacturing, the seconds are invented in order to work together with human workers. These types of collaborative droids were firstly introduced in 1996 and within the past decades have drastically changed the industrial sector as we know it. Nowadays, they are an integral part of our production system; and there is no limit to how their use could change our lives in the near future. But, let’s talk more in detail about these revolutionary droids!
Before explaining how collaborative robots work, we need to talk a little about how typical androids are programmed, in order to understand how these two kinds differ from one another. It is interesting to note that they are in fact designed to work in areas that are generally defined by four factors: Dull, Dirty, Dangerous, and Dear, also referred to as “the 4 Ds of Robotization”.
Robotic machines are therefore historically created to take care alone of:
Chores that present risk to us (Dangerous);
Tasks that are repetitive (Dull);
Jobs that happen in conditions that would be unpleasant (ex., extremely polluted and dirty places);
Other events where economically it would be more efficient to employ a single robot compared to its human counterparts (Dear).
From this assumption, it is clear how the advent of robots was antagonized and badly accepted by skilled labor workers, since they were technically meant to replace them in the manufacturing industry,
On the other hand, cobots start from a completely different position: they are born to aid us in our daily tasks and be of service to humans. The most important thing is that collaborative robots operate in a working environment that is shared with people and they have a high response to human presence. This comports many benefits, including the fact that it is not necessary to build safety barriers between them and normal workers, as they are programmed to decelerate and even shut down completely in case of close proximity. On the contrary, industrial robots are unable to safely perform their tasks while people are nearby; they are in fact installed in specific areas signaled by fences and bright colors and they need to be shut down completely with human proximity. This factor also comports a large consequent dispense of money and energy.
As machines whose main purpose is to heavily interact with humans, cobots are programmed to obey the famous first law of robotics, originally invented by the writer and so considered the father of robotics Isaac Asimov: “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm”. To comply with this, collaborative droids are equipped with a multitude of sensors that allow them to respond and react accordingly to human presence.
The big picture behind human collaborative robots is that skilled manufacturing workers can delegate repetitive duties to cobots in the same vicinity as them, with minimal supervision, and at the same time, carry on with more rigorous tasks. Another advantage is that they are very easy to program and they can be taught new tasks not by coding, but with the use of a simpler graphical user interface. Some models are also capable of learning by repetition. For example, a worker can first move the mechanical arm with his hands along desired trajectories to specific positions; later, the cobot will repeat these movements independently. In this way, employees can easily reprogram the cobots and use them for a variety of tasks.
Another goal, already reached in many industries, is that experts in different sectors are able to perform some of their own chores by benefitting from the technical precision of these Artificial Intelligences; for example, cobots have started to assist doctors in surgeon operations.
The two cobots inventors, Professors Colgate & Professor Peshkin, https://peshkin.mech.northwestern.edu/
Collaborative robots were invented in the middle of the Nineties by two academics from Northwestern University, J. Edward Colgate and Michael Peshkin. For those who are wondering where the term Cobots came from, it was conceived by one of their post-doc students Brent Gillespie, after a contest held by the two inventors. At the very beginning, those new droids were in fact referred to as "programmable constraint machines", to indicate that they were extremely safe to work with and they did not have the autonomy to operate alone.
However, this definition was too long and not catchy enough for the big public, hence the competition which led to the word nowadays used.
The manufacturing industry immediately showed a great interest in the subject, and the two Professors received substantial funding from important companies such as Ford Motor Company, the General Motor Foundation, and the National Science Foundation. The two scientists also opened their own corporation, Cobotics LLC, which greatly contributed to the development of collaborative androids through the following years.
Fast forward in time, the first Cobots for the industrial market, the LBR 3, was sold in 2004 by Kuka Robotics. Some years later, in 2008, Universal Robots sold their own first Cobot, the UR 5, a model after which many more followed.
At this moment, it is estimated that cobots companies have produced and installed around 8.400 industrial collaborative machines in 55 countries all over the world, in a progress that has forever changed and improved the current industry.
Within the last decades, cobots have evolved and have been programmed to fulfill many types of chores. There are many positive outcomes that have contributed to the success of their industrial use: firstly they are much cheaper than industrial robots; secondly, they usually do not require additional production space to accommodate them. The speed of their movements, however, is lower than that of industrial machines which means lower productivity, but overall their advantages are so many that they still make up for this negative aspect.
Most cobots have low weight and dimensions (weight around 15-20 kg; height approximately 1.5 m). Because of this, they can be moved relatively easily and used at different points in the production chain. Cobots are usually able to manipulate loads up to 10 kg. They are particularly good at repetitive activities such as arranging, packing, gluing or soldering, assembling, loading, machine maintenance, and quality testing.
Nowadays, they are widely used in the following industries:
Pharmacy and related packaging;
Medicines for surgical applications;
They are of course also utilized in other types of manufacturing, and in the future, there are no limits to where and for what they could be used as their technology advances.
Cobots can be installed on any surface - horizontal, vertical, and even on the ceiling in case of production need. Economically speaking, their introduction in the manufacturing process does not require a large investment, so they are well suited for use in small and medium-sized businesses. Their comparatively low price makes it possible to create various business projects using them. Finally, they consume little power, another great economical advantage.
Generally, cobots used in manufacturing are nowadays divided into four different categories. Those are the following:
Safety Monitored Stop; they interact with the working environment and they ensure that the other robotic machines stop working in the presence of humans, in order not to harm them;
Speed and separation; this second type works similarly to the first; with the difference that instead of completing stopping the production process, the cobots simply slow down the other machines to an acceptable safety level. It can also stop them at once if people happen to be too close;
Power and Force Limiting; the third type is constructed to work together with human workers at different tasks, and they often employ mechanical arms. Their artificial bodies are designed with round corners and different collisions sensors in order to avoid harm and impacts with people;
Hand Guiding; the fourth type of cobots are also designed to work with humans, by responding to their direct command only. A typical example is weight lifting machines that are able to perform duties impossible for human strength.
A lot of progress has been made in such a short period of time. The development of cobots is only limited by mankind's imagination and further improvements in safety will possibly lay the foundations for house androids, as described in many Sci-Fi books and tv-series. We at SourceMe are very excited to be part of these developments in the machine-building industry and we are looking forward to seeing what other great inventions will come to fruition in the coming years.
Article by Eleonora Cugurullo