Humans and robots can exist in productive harmony to maximise profits and eliminate tasks tainted with drudgery. Andy Larson, CrossRobotics business unit manager at Cross Company CrossRobotics, and Douglas Peterson, general manager for the Americas at Universal Robots, discuss the smooth transition to automation.

Your robot has just arrived in two boxes. What do you do now? Simply mount the robotic arm to a stand, connect a few cables to the controller and plug your collaborative robot – or 'cobot' – into a standard power outlet.

"If you can unbox your new printer from the office store," says Andy Larson, "then you have all the skills it takes to get one of these robots hooked up."

A business unit manager at Cross Company – the first major US distributor of Universal Robots' cobots, and one of its primary channel partners – Larson says that a major selling point is programming simplicity. "The Polyscope interface simplifies the process; five clicks after you hit the power button, you're ready to start programming the robot. You can be ready to go within minutes of receiving it."

Cobots are not only easy to set up, but flexible, too. "Manufacturers often require low-volume, high-mix, flexible manufacturing," says Douglas Peterson, general manager for the Americas at Universal Robots. "You can move them around the shop or factory doing one task for a few hours and then to another machine for a completely different task, just by calling up a different program."

Cobots uncaged

These force-limited cobots can be easily redeployed in many cases because they are inherently safe. They may not require guarding or need to be locked in a cage, like traditional robots.

"This benefits medical device manufacturers," says Peterson, "as minimal changes need to be made to the production process. This is important as regulations require that they report any manufacturing-process changes to their customers. With our robots, they get the savings without major changes to the process."

The cobots' safety also means that people can work alongside them and reprogram them without fear of injury. Far from being apprehensive of the integration of cobots, Peterson says, employees derive increased work satisfaction by ridding their daily routines of "the three Ds: dull, dirty and dangerous tasks". Repetitive, tedious and ergonomically challenging actions can be assigned to cobots instead.

For medical device manufacturers requiring high-skilled labour, Larson says, "It's a home-run industry for this type of technology."

Consider the machinist on the production line; their presence is mandatory because their technical skills are required to oversee the process. By default, this normally results in them becoming the machine tender – unfortunately, a very expensive one.

"If you let a cobot handle the machine tending, you can redeploy that labour asset to do things of higher value, such as quality control or process improvement," says Larson.

Redeploy the humans

Applying skilled human labour to intricate tasks, as opposed to robotic drudgery, is also good for profits.

"If you have a high-value part being tended or high-value labour, you can get extremely fast ROIs," Peterson says. "We're seeing payback times of 195 days on average, but we've seen as short as 30 days."

Another cost-saving factor is that the cobots are maintenance-free, besides the normal scheduled checks required in any automated processes to verify its metrics and performance. In the unlikely event of something going wrong, these modular machines can be easily replaced in the field.

"They are of very intelligent design," Larson says. A technically savvy employee with minimal training will be able to change the joint or a board in the controller, perform basic maintenance or make replacements. "Cross has been a big evangelist of what Universal Robots is doing. It has changed the way we do business, and has completely changed the way our customers view manufacturing. They now have the ability to free up labour to do more valuable things than just move parts."