Cobots are gaining new skills to take on tougher jobs

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Six years ago, ABB unveiled YuMi, a collaborative robot that works safely alongside humans, helping with repetitive, dull or dangerous tasks. Now, with the launch of two new models, GoFa and SWIFTI, cobots are levelling up: they’re stronger, faster and easier to configure and use, with new, innovative safety features that allow them to be more seamlessly integrated into workplaces.
Collaborative robots – or cobots – are designed to work alongside people without safety measures such as fences. They’re easy to reprogram, meaning human co-workers can redeploy them with ease without having to modify an entire production line, making cobots ideal for repetitive or dangerous tasks in small businesses and large industry alike.

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“We launched the world’s first truly collaborative robot – YuMi – in 2015, and today it is working alongside people in factories, workshops and laboratories all over the world, performing a variety of tasks, from assembling electronics and electrical components to processing Covid-19 tests, which leaves workers free to do more value-add activities,” says Sami Atiya, President ABB Robotics and Discrete Automation.
For example, Telefonica in Argentina uses YuMi to support its dispatch team with order fulfilment, while automotive component supplier, Hella, works with the cobot in China to assemble a variety of components, says Andie Zhang, Global Product Manager for Collaborative Robots at ABB.
The wide range of uses means the market is growing for cobots. In 2019, more than 18,000 cobots were in the workforce around the world, according to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), up by 11 per cent on the year before. That growth is predicted to continue, with Emergen Research forecasting cobot sales will climb to $9.3 billion by 2027, up from $0.7bn in 2019.
And that growth in cobots is set to continue as the robots get stronger and more capable. For example, ABB is expanding its cobot portfolio with two new models: GoFa, which can handle a payload up to 5kg, and SWIFTI, which is five times faster than other cobots.

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GoFa has been designed to help companies automate tasks such as material handling, machine tending, component assembly and laboratory automation. Besides carrying a payload up to 5kg, it has a reach of 950mm and can operate at 2.2 metres per second, which is faster than rival cobots, while maintaining precision in picking and placement.
The extra weight and speed capabilities come alongside additional safety features. The original cobot, YuMi, is what Zhang calls inherently safe. “It’s just not strong enough to hurt you,” she says.
GoFa is stronger and faster, but to avoid the need for a physical barrier between humans and cobots, it also features a safety system including integrated torque and positioning sensors in each of the cobot’s six joints. That means it will halt within milliseconds if it contacts a human, preventing injury. “Even though it can lift ten times more than YuMi, it is still able to stop immediately when there is contact between a robot and a human,” Zhang says. “That’s important, as the force is relevant to how much it’s holding – if a cobot carries 500g or 5kg, it’s a huge difference, as is speed.”
She adds: “These safety features are what allow the cobot to lift more weight while still working closely with humans.”

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That makes GoFa useful for small production batches, she notes, which aren’t often automated because setting up the process takes too much time and is therefore costly. “The purpose of this cobot is to help out humans,” Zhang says. “You can have the robot do simple and repetitive tasks, while the human does the parts of the work that are hard for a robot to manage.”

Indeed, Atiya adds that it’s important not to lose sight of how human workers fit into the equation. “People on the production line contribute their unique problem-solving capabilities, insights and adaptability, while the best performing manufacturing operations are those that can harness people skills alongside the potential of machines and technology,” Atiya says.
While GoFa is at home anywhere from factories to small businesses, ABB’s other new model is designed for industry. And SWIFTI has that name for a reason: it’s five times faster than other cobots, operating at speeds of five metres per second with a payload up to 4kg and a reach of 580mm. But as this is a collaborative tool that people need to interact with, physical safety fencing won’t work. Instead, ABB has included an active safety system using a laser scanner. As a human worker approaches SWIFTI, it will slow down and stop, allowing the worker to reload it or reposition parts. Once that person exits the safety zone, the cobot will automatically restart.
“That’s key to keeping cobots flexible and easy to use,” Zhang says. “It enables more people to use industrial robots,” she adds, comparing it to the early days of computers, which began as tools for professional users before expanding to everyone. “You don’t have to be a specialist, and this is the trend we’re seeing with collaborative robots.”
Indeed, as with the original YuMi the new cobots, GoFa and SWIFTI, are complex feats of engineering that have been designed to be easy to use. Taking advantage of ABB’s Wizard easy programming software, anyone can program a cobot without prior coding skills by using simple drag-and-drop tools. “Customers will be able to operate their cobot within minutes of installation, with no specialised training or programming skills required. If you are comfortable using a tablet, you can program one of our new cobots with our easy-to-use fast setup tools,” says Zhang.
Alongside that, the cobots are designed to be easy to pick up and move, with GoFa weighing just 27kg.” It can easily be lifted, mounted on a table, and you can start programming movements right away,” says Zhang. “You can put your hand on the robot and move it by hand, which you can’t do with industrial robots.”
As cobots become even easier and more flexible to use, more companies will benefit from their automation. “This will enable new sectors of the economy, including SMEs, to embrace automation for the first time,” says Atiya. In fact, a new ABB survey suggests that as many as eight out of ten workplaces could feature a robot by 2030, with 84 per cent of businesses saying they are likely to introduce, or increase the use of, robotics and automation in the next decade. Nearly half of businesses (43 per cent) said they were looking to robotics to help them improve workplace health and safety.

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There’s another element of ABB’s cobot design that Zhang hopes businesses appreciate: their industrial design. “They look fantastic,” she says. “YuMi looks like the robot of the future, it looks safe and friendly.” That’s important to integrating cobots into workforces, she adds, as it encourages people to feel safe around the machines. “The first time we showed YuMi at a trade show, a seven-year-old girl came up to the robot and started touching it and working with it — I didn’t have to tell her it was safe, it just feels safe,” Zhang says. “That made us realise how important industrial design is.”
GoFa in particular has an intriguing design, she adds. Beyond its added capabilities and safety features, the cobot has a distinct sleek and slim look and feel. “It’s a beautiful piece of industrial design to have in your office or factory,” she says. “People will want to work with it.” And they should, she adds. “This is a useful tool made to make our lives better and easier.”
–Find out more about ABB’s new cobot lineup at solutions.abb/cobots

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