Weighing 38kg, YuMi has the dimensions of a short, but wide-set, human. He has two powerful, hulking arms, hands like pincers and a padded plastic body over a magnesium skeleton.

YuMi is a collaborative robot – or ‘cobot’ – designed by ABB for use on small-parts assembly lines. Following installation, he works hand in hand with human colleagues, with no need for barriers or cages.

The T2X line by Staubli, meanwhile, comprises small six-axis robots with yellow skin. Launched in 2017, these have internal routing to reduce cable management and can be mounted on floors, walls or ceilings.

Then there are Rethink Robotics’ high-performance Baxter and Sawyer models, each of which has a ‘face’ on an LED screen, with a variety of expressions indicating its ‘state of mind’; Universal Robots’ UR3, UR5 and UR10; and Fanuc America’s cobots that can move objects as heavy as 35kg.

Cobots are not strictly robots, but are machines that can undertake a wide range of human tasks. So, while a conventional robot might be used for activities outside a person’s capabilities –those using extremes of strength or speed, say – a cobot can provide assistance at a workstation.

“Cobots can differ from their conventional cousins in a number of ways, but their ability to work together with human operators, as opposed to working autonomously in guarded cells, is primarily what makes them different,” explains Stephen Hunt, membership services director at the British Plastics Federation (BPP). “It is a type of robot that is capable of operating in conjunction with a human operator, within a shared work environment, and without the need for traditional safety fencing or other guarding.”

Perceived threat

Of course, working in such close proximity to robots may cause a degree of apprehension. According to the US Department of Labor, robots have caused 33 workplace deaths and injuries in the US since 1979, with the result that they are typically kept in cages.

Cobots, however, rely on a more sophisticated set of safety measures, including force sensors, collision sensitivity, and power and speed limits.

Many of them also have humanlike features – faces, or human-like movements, for example – designed to make workers feel more comfortable.

“Having the operator and cobot directly interact with each other can eliminate the need for fixtures or other ancillary equipment normally required in traditional systems to keep the robot and operator apart,” says Hunt. “They can be equipped with 2D and 3D vision systems or connected to peripheral devices such as RFID scanners. This ensures accuracy and helps them to understand changes in their workspace that might require intervention.”

A further point of differentiation is the ease with which they’re programmed. ABB’s YuMi, for instance, relies on ‘leadthrough programming’, by which it learns a process through physical guidance rather than coding.

“Traditional industrial robots are often programmed with complex software, while cobots can be programmed by anyone, without specialised training,” Hunt explains.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, cobots are becoming more popular across the manufacturing industries. While collaborative robotics is still a relatively new technology, it is approaching a tipping point of mass adoption.

According to ABI Research, the market for cobots is expected to jump from 3,000 units in 2015 to more than 40,000 by 2020 – a CAGR of 67%.

If this seems quick, it’s worth bearing in mind that cobots have a higher potential user base than traditional industrial robots. Since they’re often easier to install, programme and use, the entry barriers are lower, and may seem like a more realistic prospect for smaller businesses. They’re also relatively affordable, depending on the model, and can provide a quick return on investment – according to Barclays, the average cobot cost $24,000 in 2016.

“Cobots continue to gain momentum, and the subject is now a regular feature in mainstream industry publications. They are opening up new applications for robots and there is a lot of debate about how best to exploit this new technology,” says Hunt.

The expanding cobotics market will have implications for the medical devices industry, particularly in essential processes such as kitting, assembly and packaging.

As Hunt explains, cobots are able to displace some of the tasks performed by manual operators. “In manufacturing, traditionally the domain of the manual operator is where there are lower volumes, short-batch runs or multiple product changeovers,” he says.

“The introduction of collaborative robots means that many of these once-manual tasks can now be costeffectively automated, offering high precision and tireless endurance.”

Cobots are designed to work with people and complement their unique skills — not to fully automate jobs that are done by people.

The right jobs

Within medical device packaging, this covers a wide range of functions, particularly those that aren’t suitable for industrial-scale automation.

“Collaborative robots made by Staubli, for example, have proved successful in assisting with carton erection, transferring or loading products into a carton, handing trays of products to and from an operator, and various other tasks,” says Hunt.

“To take another example, ABB’s YuMi robot is used by one electronics supplier to transfer delicate and electromagnetic sensitive components from expensive production trays in a filtered air environment to cardboard boxes for shipping.”

While traditional robots can be used for these sorts of applications, the cobot gets the job done with no need for extensive guarding, although careful design is still necessary to prevent loss of productivity as a result of unintended operator interventions.

“There is a trade-off between productivity and increasing levels of collaboration. The key is to be able to benefit from collaboration while maximising productivity,” says Hunt.

Cobots are still to make a significant impact on medical device packaging, which lags some way behind the electronics industry in embracing the new technology. However, interest in the subject is growing. In October 2017, United Packaging Associates (UPA) held an event called ‘Medical Device Packaging and Cobotics’, with a view to clearing up any confusion.

“It is an emerging topic that people don’t understand very well,” UPA’s Janice Loppe told PMP News. “Many applications in packaging, particularly activities – such as kitting, or short runs of speciality packages – are not good candidates for automation. These applications are largely performed manually. With employee issues such as labour shortages and operator fatigue, it’s possible that cobotics may offer new solutions to the packaging industry.”

A major advantage of cobots is the fact they can help eliminate human error. “Collaborative robots can undertake the dull and repetitive tasks that can often lead to operator fatigue and subsequent errors,” explains Hunt. “It is not uncommon for operators performing repetitive tasks to become less efficient towards the end of a shift and this is when errors can creep in. Cobots are precise and don’t get sleepy or distracted.”

Cobots also allow operators to concentrate on the more demanding tasks where a person can add value, or where human dexterity or high-level decision-making is needed.

“This combination of man and machine can be applied successfully to many tasks previously considered as manual operations, with the benefits of an improved working environment for the operator and higher levels of productivity and quality for the business,” says Hunt. “The fact that there is no guarding also makes it easier for manufacturers to move or redeploy the cobot as production or manufacturing priorities change.”

Automatic fear

Although cobots are different from traditional industrial robots, they still form part of the industrial internet of things (IIoT) and, like any form of automation, may stoke fears of potential human redundancy.

Management consultancy McKinsey has warned that around 30% of tasks in about 60% of occupations could be automated, leading some to suspect that jobs are on the line.

For the time being, however, these concerns remain hypothetical. Robots still have many limitations compared with human workers – in one 2015 study, a robot took 20 minutes to fold a towel – and there is little evidence to suggest that they are taking jobs away. In fact, countries with the lowest unemployment rates also tend to have the highest density of robots. According to The Economy Journal, “Highly robotised countries, such as Japan, South Korea and Germany, maintain relatively low unemployment rates. In less-robotised Spain, on the other hand, the unemployment rate is obscenely high.”

Hunt concurs, pointing out that we live in a world where there are not only skill shortages but a real shortage of labour.

“Cobots are designed to work with people and complement their unique skills – not to fully automate jobs that are done by people,” he says. “Cobots help to increase productivity and allow the UK to compete better within a global market. This can potentially increase activity, which in turn can increase the creation of new high-skilled jobs.”

What will happen in the future is impossible to gauge, but some have suggested that cobots may start to move beyond the factory floor. As artificial intelligence and machine learning become more sophisticated, these robots will become progressively smarter, and they could be used to provide assistance in public spaces and homes. We may also start to see new applications within medical devices.

“There are numerous tasks where the precision of collaborative robots and their ability to safely share workspaces designed for people is a distinct advantage, such as laboratory testing,” says Hunt.

Whether this will lead to redundancies in the long run is hard to say. What does seem clear is that cobots will alter the nature of people’s roles.

“Cobots are already becoming part of the manufacturing process, and companies like ABB believe their use will extend beyond the factory to hospitals and laboratories,” says Hunt. “Staubli believes over the coming years sales will be driven by cobots capable of operating in a traditional autonomous environment, a completely collaborative system or a combination of the two.”

It’s very early days for cobots, but with the market poised to take off, it seems likely that robotic assistants will be par for the course in future, with tomorrow’s models further breaking down the bounds between human and machine.