Cobots can work safely alongside people, taking on fiddly or repetitive work, while a human oversees the output or focuses on a different task
Robots are going to steal your job – that’s one myth Sami Atiya would like to debunk. “If you look at the most heavily automated countries in the world – South Korea, Japan, Germany – they have some of the lowest unemployment rates,” says the president of robotics and discrete automation at ABB. “So robots create jobs rather than taking them.” Indeed, while the World Economic Forum predicts the robot revolution will displace 85 million jobs – but will create 97 million new roles.
As an example, Atiya points to one ABB customer in the UK. “The growth potential of one of our customers – a welding firm – was being limited until they automated low-level tasks,” he says. “Not only was it able to expand its business, but the highly skilled welders were able to focus on more interesting projects, as the robots took care of the more mundane welding jobs.”
That’s why, at the end of 2019, there was already 2.7 million industrial robots at work in factories globally – up by 12 per cent on 2018, according to IFR. But other sectors are also turning to automation, such as healthcare, logistics and even food production, with ABB robots flipping pancakes for Honeytop Specialty Foods.
More are set to automate thanks to the rise of cobots, or collaborative robots that that work safely alongside people, which have doubled their share of the market since 2017.
“We launched the world’s first truly collaborative robot – YuMi – in 2015,” Atiya says. “Today, it is working alongside people in factories, workshops and laboratories all over the world, performing precise and repetitive tasks, from assembling electronics and electrical components to testing ATM machines – which leaves workers free to do more value-add activities.”
Indeed, the IFR started tracking cobots in 2017, when they made up 2.8 per cent of the market; two years later, that had risen to 4.8 per cent, with more than 18,000 deployed each year. “Cobots, with their ability to work safely alongside people without the need for expensive and bulky fences, will help accelerate this trend,” says Atiya.
What makes cobots different from robots is that humans and cobots can work side-by-side — and that’s because of passive and active safety systems. “These enable people and robots to safely work together and even co-operate on the same tasks for maximum flexibility and efficiency, without jeopardising speed or safety,” says Atiya.
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Because humans and cobots work safely side-by-side, they can share both workspace and tasks, leaving human workers available for more precise, creative work, or to manage quality control. It also means humans can quickly reprogram a cobot using simple tools, such as the easy-to-use graphical interface of ABB’s Wizard easy programming software that lets anyone manage a YuMi robot – without needing any coding skills. “Only a few minutes after the installation, customers will be able to operate their YuMi robot – with no specialised training,” says Atiya. “The easier robots become to set up and operate, the more sectors and businesses can benefit, far beyond the manufacturing sector.”
Flexibility and ease of programming are exactly what’s needed by smaller businesses, which may produce a wider variety of products. And that’s the type of company that’s increasingly opting for cobots: smaller businesses with ever changing production lines can particularly benefit from the ease of reprogramming cobots such as ABB’s YuMi. “Cobots, like YuMi, also offer scope for taking automation to where it needs to be and to improve worker productivity by letting the robot do the boring, repetitive, physically demanding tasks or those requiring consistent levels of high dexterity and concentration,” says Atiya.
“Put simply, cobots are the future of work in many sectors,” says Atiya. “Cobots bring tireless precision and endurance for repetitive tasks, enabling people and robots to safely work together and share the same workspaces.” Indeed, cobots are already in use in logistics, healthcare, retail and even labs, with ABB cobots helping to safely accelerate Covid-19 testing in Singapore – performing an incredible 50,000 tests a day while keeping lab workers safe.
And they’ll change how we do business. Now, factories are traditionally designed for mass production, but robots will allow mass customisation. For example, Reading’s Boomf uses ABB robots to print photos on marshmallows, while London’s RoboFold machines metal to customers’ precise requirements, and Sculptur in Sweden uses an ABB robot to 3D print designer furniture made from recycled plastic. The factory of the future must combine self-learning automation with always-on connectivity.
And that will continue as cobots expand their capabilities, with ABB set to extend and enhance its family of cobots with new models being launched later this year.
“With the advances we are making in software and digital, and with our new cobot products set to be launched in 2021, I see ABB’s legacy of innovative disruption not only continuing but also speeding up,” Atiya says. “Supporting this we have a broad ecosystem of innovation partners, with whom we develop new solutions and tap into growth segments. Examples include our co-operation with the Texas Medical Center, where we are developing new robotics technologies for the hospital of the future, and our work with AI-specialist Covariant to bring AI-enabled robotics solutions to market, starting with a fully autonomous warehouse order fulfilment solution.”
Indeed, AI and data is the key to realising the full potential of flexible production in the factory of the future. “A robot could look at its production tasks for the day and automatically download a program needed to do a new task, without manual intervention, or be able to learn new tasks from other robots in different cells,” adds Atiya.
And that’s good news for people: “Robots excel at the dull, dirty, repetitive and dangerous jobs that people increasingly do not want to do,” he says.
Cobots could make work easier and more rewarding, while driving the next revolution in productivity, says Atiya. “Each industrial revolution produced an increase in efficiency, while improving conditions for workers,” he says. “The fourth revolution is no different, with workplaces becoming smart, automated and connected.”
–Join ABB at 0800-0900 GMT on February 24, 2021 for a special virtual event, live from their HQ in Switzerland, that will once again see them push the boundaries of robotics.Register here to add this to your calendar and for access to the virtual event and supporting materials.