November 19, 2015      

Collaborative robots are proving themselves to be tireless, efficient workers in all sorts of manufacturing and logistics environments, while their $15,000 to $25,000 price tags are very budget friendly, especially for SMEs.

The global collaborative robotics market will grow ten-fold from $100 million today to $1 billion in 2020, claims ABI Research in a study called “Collaborative Robotics: State of the Market/State of the Art.

“The sector is very dynamic and is expanding rapidly, with new product offerings being released into the market from both established companies and smaller, emerging firms,” noted ABI’s Dan Kara. “Larger firms are actively acquiring smaller companies with proven technology.”

However, a decided drawback to co-robots is that they are most often relegated to light manufacturing, light assembly, and light logistics, and for good reason, since they are themselves lightweight.

Payloads for co-robots like Rethink’s Baxter are 5 lb., while the UR-10 from Universal Robots is more like 20 lb. All of which excludes their deployment to jobs requiring brawny machines for heavy-weight activities like stacking bags of Quickrete or corny kegs of beer, each of which tote out at around 70 lb.

Since there are lots of manufacturing and logistics operations where heavy lifting is the norm, and since those jobs are exactly the ones that humans would much prefer to offload to machines, there has been a true, ongoing need for a big strong collaborative robot.

Gentle giant

fanuc co-robot

Japan’s FANUC seems to have ably filled that co-robot gap with its first-ever, ever-so-burly looking CR-35iA collaborative robot giant; the 35 in its model number means that the machine can lift 35kg or 77 lb., which offers the big boy cobot instant advantages over others of its kind.

Essentially, the CR-35iA is an industrial robot with all of the traits of a co-robot.

“With traditional [industrial] robots, the capital costs for the [machines] themselves account for only 25 percent to 30 percent of the total system costs,” said Scott Mabie, general manager of Universal Robots’ Americas division. “The remaining costs are associated with robot programming, setup and dedicated, shielded work cells.

“The ‘out-of-box experience’ with a collaborative robot is typically less than an hour,” he added. “That’s the time it takes to unpack the robot, mount it and program the first simple task.”

“Safety barriers are expensive, consume a great deal of bench and floor space, obstruct access to equipment, and reduce productivity,” said Mabie.

All of which is exactly what Rick Maxwell, director of large robot applications for FANUC America, said about his new machine: “The CR-35iA is an industrial robot that also allows collaboration with humans. The CR-35iA can work autonomously without fencing or barriers, or it can work in concert with humans and assist in tasks that would not be suitable for people.”

“The CR-35iA collaborative robot allows shared workspace between an operator and the interactive robot,” said Greg Buell, product manager, FANUC America. “The highly-sensitive robot gently stops if it comes in contact with the operator, allowing the robot and human to work side by side.”

FANUC currently has units running in production at General Motors.

But how gentle is gentle?

Although Buell claimed that the “highly-sensitive robot gently stops if it comes into contact with the operator,” FANUC’s own video of the co-robot in action displays a not-so-gentle side to the hulking green machine all covered in a layer of protective foam.

See for yourself in this FANUC-produced video. Pay particular attention as the robot lifts a spare tire (weighing 28 lb.) off a pallet and accidentally strikes the human operator.

Something in that scene seems less than highly-sensitive and gentle, especially with a payload that is less than half of its maximum operating capacity of 77 lb. What if the CR-35iA struck the operator while swinging around carrying its full payload?

Maxwell told Design News, “The CR-35iA is TuV-certified to maintain a contact force less than 150 N.” That 150N is 150 Newtons of force units, which is equal to 33.7 lb., slightly more than the weight of a cinderblock.

Imagine getting beaned by the CR-35iA as it swings to load a bag of Quickrete?

Calls to TuV SuD America in Peabody, Mass., for a clarification on the CR-35iA certification were not returned.

Maybe a solution for the CR-35iA might be to engineer the cobot with a proximity stop like other co-robots rather than first striking a human co-worker and then coming to a halt.

FANUC has definitely found for itself an as yet untapped and potentially solid market niche for its new cobot to service, which might be enhanced all the more by tightening up on the looming safety issue sooner rather than later.