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May 09, 2016      

BOSTON — Cobots are the vanguard of the next big wave of industrial automation, thanks to improving sensors, flexibility for multiple uses, and emerging safety standards. Awareness of how collaborative robots can be used is just as important, said presenters at last week’s AIA Vision Show and International Collaborative Robots Workshop here.

“It’s all about the applications,” said Scott Mabie, general manager for the Americas region at Universal Robots A/S. “Collaborative robots are easy to set up, program, and deploy.”

“While you still need to conduct a risk assessment, these robots are safe to work alongside humans, and 70 to 80 percent [of shops] can use them without fencing,” he said.

“Traditional applications include pick-and-place operations, electronics testing, and packaging,” Mabie told about 250 attendees at the conference.

Path processing involves a repeatable order of tasks and lends itself to cobots. Painting, polishing, and labeling are all good applications for Universal Robots’ robotic arms, he said.

Mabie cited the example of The Dynamic Group, a Minnesota-based injection-molding company that quadrupled its output with three UR arms “while maintaining its manufacturing footprint.”

Similarly, Tegra Medical LLC doubled its pharmaceutical dispensing output, got a good return on investment (ROI), and reduced defects by using cobots, according to Mabie.

In addition, Odense, Denmark-based Universal Robots‘ vision-guided robots helped Gentofte Hospital improve response times for sorting blood samples for testing by 20 percent.

“Automakers are 50 percent of the market,” Mabie told Robotics Business Review. “They jump in early but take a long time. All the carmakers have collaborative robots, but it’s still growing. Chrysler is using UR for kitting and final assembly.”

BMW has taken advantage of the ease of programming of UR arms to assist human workers in Spartanburg, S.C., by applying adhesive to car-door insulation panels more consistently than they could do alone.

Unusual use cases for cobots

While many UR robots are part of increasing industrial automation in manufacturing and logistics, they’re by no means limited to such sectors.

“Users are beginning to think of our robots as just a tool,” he said. “With production software and vision, this makes it more accessible and deployable for more applications.”

“A relatively big user is using a UR5 to hold a light and a camera for brain surgery,” he said. “In another case, a dairy is using our robot arms to apply iodine disinfectant to cows’ udders.”

Mabie recalled how Yooshu uses a UR arm to cut tailored flip-flops, an example of the customizable products enabled by technology. “It’s a great example of high-volume, high-flexibility, short batch runs enabled by collaborative robots, which aren’t going away. More collaboration actually means greater productivity and less ‘lights-out’ operations,” so human workers are still needed for supervision and value-added tasks, he said.

For instance, Paradigm Electronics Inc. in Mississuaga, Ontario, avoided layoffs while increasing its productivity by 50 percent. The built-in force mode in UR arms was ideal for automating the polishing of audio speaker cases, claimed Mabie.

UR arms are also moving into logistics, thanks to mobile robotics providers such as Clearpath Robotics Inc. and Mobile Industrial Robots ApS (MiR).

Universal Robots' Scott Mabie

Scott Mabie says cobot prospects are very good.

Scaling up to meet end-user interest

Universal Robots was founded in 2004 by a few Danish university students who wondered how to automate putting pepperoni on pizza, recounted Mabie.

“Last year was a good year — we launched the UR3 and were acquired by Teradyne,” he said. “So far this year, we’ve sold 8,000 robots.”

From 2014 to 2015, UR reported a 91 percent increase in revenue and 122 percent increase in profit. It also doubled its investment in research and development in Denmark.

“We’re scaling up to meet demand,” he said. “The capacity at our fab was 30,000 per year one year ago, and it’s increasing to 50,000 per year. Our customers can now expect delivery in less than two to four weeks.”

Europe still accounts for half of UR’s customers, according to Mabie, with the U.S. and Asia at 25 percent each. Universal Robots came to the U.S. only in 2012, and he said the U.S. and Asian shares should grow fastest.

“There’s huge room for growth, particularly with SMEs [small and midsize enterprises] of fewer than 250 employees,” he said. “They can buy three to five robots, and that market will grow from $150 million to $200 million today to $3 billion in 2020.”

“SMEs tend to decide more quickly based on ROI calculations, while big companies have a longer sales cycle,” Mabie added. “One example is a user in in southern Illinois, where low unemployment means it’s harder to find workers,” he noted. “They use collaborative robots to help make riding lawnmower decks.”

Several exhibitors at the International Collaborative Robotics Workshop told Robotics Business Review that they were seeing more end-user interest this year than previously. The Robotics Industries Association (RIA) has found that cobots are a very competitive area, said Mabie.

“The Big Four are getting into cobots, so we must be quicker and more nimble,” he said, referring to ABB, KUKA, FANUC, and Yaskawa. He agreed that there’s still plenty of room in the growing cobot market for multiple vendors.

Attendees, including several from organizations already using cobots, evaluated products from Universal Robots, ABB, and Precise Automation at the conference.

“The collaborative robotics model lowers the cost of entry by offering robots that are safe, easy to use, and redeployable,” Mabie said. “The average payback period is 195 days.”