Helping hands: how cobots are closing the productivity gap

Danish technology firm Universal Robots is at the forefront of efforts to use cobots to help close UK manufacturing's productivity gap. Melissa Bradshaw reports

Manufacturing has had a tough time of it over the last couple of years. Not one sub-sector of engineering won’t have felt the strain of Covid-19, or the issues thrown into the mix by Brexit — from global supply chain shortages to a lack of skilled workers, navigating these challenges against the added backdrop of growing climate concerns has proved overwhelming for many, across industries from aerospace to healthcare.

Universal robots cobots
Universal Robots six-axis arms come in a variety of sizes

The envisioned ‘Factory of the Future’ concept, utilising smart technologies such as artificial intelligence, IoT and 3D printing, looks toward a revolutionised manufacturing industry with seamless connectivity and increased productivity among the benefits. Sustainability is also a key driver of innovation in the area, calling for response to the rising demand for low-carbon, climate-friendly tech.

Amongst these technologies lie collaborative robots, or ‘cobots’, which are becoming more and more widely utilised in engineering. Designed to work alongside humans, they could provide a welcome helping hand for the undesirably time-consuming, repetitive tasks involved in many manufacturing processes.

Pioneering cobot developer Universal Robots believes that its tech could be the answer to many challenges faced over the last couple of years, helping the UK to catch up in the automation race where it has historically lagged behind its G7 counterparts in Europe and the states.

The Danish company was founded in 2005 by three university professors, Esben Østergaard, Kasper Støy, and Kristian Kassow. Their research aimed to identify the barriers to the use of normal industrial robots in smaller companies, finding that in many cases, industrial robots were too complex, unsafe, costly to operate and unadaptable for use in factory settings.

There’s a massive shortage of skilled welders, and by setting up a cobot welding cell you can actually have an unskilled person loading the cell with the parts and let the robot carry out the welding

Mark Gray - Universal Robots

Mark Gray, UK and Ireland country manager for Universal Robots explained that the company’s cobots were designed with this need in mind, aiming to fill the gap in the market for a robot that could fulfil the needs of SME manufacturers in particular — the company’s biggest market today.

“We don’t really compete with the big industrial robot companies. They’re fantastic at what they do, but they’ve been designed for a specific purpose,” Gray told The Engineer. “The market for collaborative robots is very much untapped.”

Universal Robots’ six-axis robotic arms come in a variety of sizes, the smallest being for desktop assembly with a payload of 3kg. The next size up, with a 5kg payload has similar dimensions to a human arm, making it well placed to help with tasks such as moving parts in and out of a machine, whereby a human would be sat at a bench.

The heavy duty 16kg payload robot, the company’s biggest on offer, can be used for tasks such as packing boxes at the end of the line, whilst the slightly smaller 12.5kg is well suited to putting parts into a CNC machine, Gray gave as an example.

“In the UK we’re quite diverse as a market compared to other parts of the world,” he said, explaining that applications for the collaborative robots here can range from assembling and putting screws into street lights, to sanding garden furniture, packaging food and welding.

“There’s a massive shortage of skilled welders, and by setting up a cobot welding cell you can actually have an unskilled person loading the cell with the parts and let the robot carry out the welding,” Gray added.

Universal robots cobots
Applications range from welding to food packaging

“The software our robots use is a suite called Polyscope. We’ve designed that to take over the really complicated parts of programming the robot. If you looked at a normal industrial robot, you have to be a qualified programmer to run on it and it’s very in-depth. We’ve simplified that to a user interface, so that it’s very simple to set the robot up, guide it around its paths and so on.”

This has been one of the key challenges, in Gray’s view, of developing the robots and ensuring they’re safe and effective for humans to operate. The robots’ force is monitored continually so that if the robot collides with something, it can be detected and immediately put into a safe stop, allowing it to continue on its path without injury.

These factors all contribute to the cobots’ potential to solve issues presented by the pandemic and Brexit, such as the skills shortage in UK manufacturing.

“The advantage of using our products over standard automation is time,” Gray said. “Our products are made to be implemented relatively quickly, with relatively easy installations, and thats [the] real advantage for people because if you went to a normal automation company to automate a process, it might take 12 months to get that in place. They’ve got to design it, come up with a concept, agree on a concept then buy it, build it and 12 months later install it. That’s not unusual.”

Comparatively, a cobot can be implemented in a matter of weeks, he said, allowing manufacturers to adopt automation at their own pace step by step — automating the entire facility as they need to, rather than ‘jumping headlong’ into the process. Cost savings are a benefit of this approach too, which will be welcome at a time when many businesses have struggled and had to take every opportunity to save some cash.

Stanley Engineered Fastening, a UK-based fastening and joining solutions company, has implemented Universal Robots’ cobots in its Warrington Facility. Since introducing 15 UR3e cobots, the company has reportedly seen a ten per cent reduction in product costs and shortened lead times by up to 70 per cent.

Elsewhere in solving pandemic-related challenges, cobots have also helped with tasks like processing Covid samples and have been used to allow for government guidelines to be observed in the workplace, for example by deploying a cobot in every second work station to maintain social distancing.

Another aspect of cobots’ ability to integrate into the Factory of the Future is the fact that they can challenge the common perception that robots will ‘take our jobs’, Gray said.

“The main premise when people think about robots is they think it’s a person or a robot, one or the other — a very binary way of thinking,” he said. “We don’t think like that. We think human skill is the single most valuable asset for any manufacturer. And by elevating people from using their human skills like inspection, intuition and so on, you make better products.

“But there are lots of dull tasks, repetitive tasks, where collaborative robots can take over. They can work alongside people, so a person working with a robot can actually increase productivity within a cell.”

The clue is in the name, Gray added, emphasising that cobots are built for collaboration and by balancing these tasks better, human skill can be utilised to the very best of its ability.

“I visit factories every week — I was at a food factory two weeks ago, they’d chartered flights from Bulgaria to bring people in to come and work in the factory. If we’ve got a labour gap in that market, the robots aren’t taking jobs, they’re assisting to fill that labour gap and that’s what we’re seeing.”

Universal Robots Cobots
Easy to use software help engineers train their robot assistants

Mass customisation and flexibility can be achieved with a cobot too, something the manufacturers of the future will need to innovate on and use new intelligent technologies to do so. Collaborative robots can assist with tasks like 3D printing, taking products out of a 3D printer and packing them for maximised productivity.

“It’s that flexibility that fits into the whole nature of the IoT, Factory of the Future and Industry 4.0,” Gray said. Cobots can also provide sustainability benefits too, an important consideration as we strive to achieve net zero emissions.

“You can employ a cobot to do a task where potentially you’d have needed an extra person, so it’s dependent on them getting to work, getting in a car. Cobots can run lights-out, so they can work and produce in the dark. They’re actually relatively low-power consumption compared to having to get somebody on site, but also because robots are repeatable, they make less scrap.”

Gray offered the example of manufacturing a high value product, like an orthopaedic knee joint. “Somebody’s got to make that metal first, they’ve got to smelt it and make it for you, and you’ve got to pick it up and put it into a machine,” he said. “If a human operator puts it in and makes a mistake, you’ve wasted all the energy of that part right through to the manufacture of it, to then make it wrong. Robots don’t make things wrong, they follow repeatable tasks.”

There’s a real argument in terms of sustainability that we can locally manufacture with cobots, Gray pointed out, allowing for big savings on energy and transport.

“If you think about localism and manufacturing repeatability, we are saving energy in the long-term. It’s an important part of the Factory of the Future.”