QUEBEC CITY – More than 200 cobot experts, partners and end users from around the world came to Quebec to hear the latest trends and discussions about collaborative robotics during the fourth annual Robotiq User Conference. The two-day event included product announcements, technical sessions and panel sessions aimed at ways systems integrators and end users can deploy more cobots, software and tools in a manufacturing environment.
Robotics Business Review was invited to attend the conference as a media guest, and we came away with the following observations on the state of cobots, integration partners, and general state of the industry.
1) Cobots aren’t just for small and midsize businesses
When you talk with companies about cobots, most assume that they’re aimed at the little guys, the small and midsize companies that can’t afford the larger industrial robots, as well as the price tag that goes along with it. While many of these businesses are benefiting from cobots, we noticed that cobots are being sold into larger enterprises as well.
During one session at the conference, Jeff Werner from Procter & Gamble spoke about how the consumer goods company is utilizing cobots to help fill in the gaps in areas where large industrial robots weren’t being used, whether from a technology or cost standpoint. As the company looks to automate more processes, cobots at those types of companies become a complement to, not a competitor to, larger industrial robots.
2) It’s the application, stupid
Companies are not just talking about their robots, components, or software anymore. Now, the message they are giving to end users is how can a cobot solve a particular task or process, through the use of application. At the conference, I saw applications such as cobot sanding, cobot assembly, cobots assisting with CNC machine tending, pick and place, and more.
While companies thinking about deploying cobots can’t just assume that “a cobot will solve everything”, we’re seeing more evidence that with the right tools, software, and hardware, cobots can attack more applications now than those from a few years ago. As long as end users know which manual process a cobot can automate, they’ll be in a better position to get one into production faster.
3) Keeping things simple is key
Similarly, users of cobots also said that deploying a complex application right from the start was not the correct method. For example, Carlos Han from Smith & Nephew said that a deburring application for medical tools that the company deployed also included removing the tool from a CNC machine, using a blower to remove excess materials, as well as a laser scanner to reduce speed should workers get too close. In hindsight, the project would have deployed quicker if they had just focused on using the cobot arm to deburr the tool, and then added the other parts later, Han said.
Speakers also agreed that both engineers and management tend to want to add additional features and complexity to projects as a way to either justify the purchase of a cobot system, or because they want the system to solve multiple problems. That method, they said, could lead to more project failures.
4) Systems integration becomes a gray area
As robotics companies become better at providing additional tools and training for deployments, the idea of utilizing a systems integrator for projects becomes less viable for many customers, who may feel the urge to “do it yourself.” With software updates that make programming a cobot easier, as well as things like Robotiq’s new application kits, the idea of systems integration seems less appealing to manufacturers, who might just deploy on their own after buying a system from a distributor (Robotiq doesn’t sell directly to end users).
On the other hand, systems integrators that are getting better at deploying cobots and tools often end up becoming distributors for the companies, as seen by a company like Fusion OEM, a CNC machine shop that deployed a slew of Universal Robots cobots to help their business, and now they are a certified partner to help sell other UR systems. While large system integrators that conduct large-scale automation projects for factories will still have lots of work to do, smaller integrators may find themselves doing less as customers get more comfortable with the cobots and applications.