The era of the cobot is here

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Nick Parkinson, US Editor, Gasworld
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Robots are increasingly being utilized in the manufacturing industry, but there are plenty who are still cautious about deploying robot coworkers, concerned that automation will displace jobs as well as posing a safety risk in the workplace.  

Had those doubters been at FABTECH 2019 in November, they would have been able to see first-hand the potential of cobots which include the collaborative robot arms from Universal Robots (UR) that are being utilized by BotX Welder from Hirebotics, Red-D-Arc and Airgas; Vectis Automation’s Cobot Welding Tool; and SnapCut from ARC Specialties.  

One potential, big benefit to these collaborative robots (known as cobots), which are robots engineered to work alongside humans, is how they can help address a labor shortage and an ageing working force. The American Welding Society (AWS) estimates there will be a deficit of 200,000 welders this year, and double that by 2024. But cobots can fill some of those vacancies, especially for repetitive jobs, according to those in the cobot market.  

Mitch Dupon, Application Development Engineer, Universal Robots USA, Inc., told gasworld, “Industry is desperate to find a solution to the lack of skilled welders for the current demand, looking forward to the future is even scarier as the old guard retires and there isn’t anyone to replace them. There is a market unserved by traditional automation that is being served by collaborative automation and they are seeing the benefits, the future looks bright for those willing to embrace the collaborative future.  

“The robots enable a company to quote more work, control consumable costs and increase quality. This leads to a more secure work environment. They give opportunity for skill development and promotion opportunities for workers and for the company to hire easier to find workers to backfill those positions. Most important, cobotic welders are tools in the hands of the skilled welder. The skilled welder can employ the cobot welder to do mundane welding tasks while the manual welder focuses on the value-added welding tasks.”  

Cobot vendors and manufacturers argue the machines can create new roles, rather than eliminating jobs from the welding industry.  

Josh Pawley, director of business development and co-founder of Fort Collins, Colorado-based Vectis Automation, told gasworld, “I don’t see cobots taking any jobs. I think we’ll continue to see the ‘Now Hiring Welders’ sign in front of each shop that a cobot goes in to. Key to this is that cobots can’t weld every application – there are many applications that are not fit for a cobot but are well-suited for the manual welder. The idea behind collaborative welding is to have the cobot handle the repetitive, boring parts so the skilled welder can focus on the skilled weldments.”  

What cobots will do, if adopted, is transforming the nature of jobs a skilled welder does. “Automation has shown that for decades we’ve been treating human workers like robots,” Rob Goldiez, co-founder of Nashville, Tennessee-based Hirebotics, told gasworld.  

“When we ask humans to do the same work day after day, week after week, without error and as efficiently as possible… we’re describing work best suited for automation but we’re asking humans to perform it. This treatment of human workers can easily lead to mistakes, burnout, turnover, safety issues, animosity towards management, and more. By unlocking robotics for more applications, BotX is allowing manufacturers, managers, and employees to break this trend. Let the BotX work on the repetitive work while your human workers are working on the unique parts, preparing new parts, or doing other high-value tasks instead of the repetitive work.”  

Goldiez believes cobots can build trust between humans and workers on the shop floor, to avoid feelings of humans versus robots, like something from The Terminator.

“Cobot welders like BotX fill a void in the market between large, complex traditional robots that are best suited for extremely large volume where cycle time is critical and human workers who have the highest levels of job satisfaction when using their problem-solving skills,” Goldiez told gasworld.  

“Cobots free up human workers to spend their valuable time-solving problems and doing unique work instead of working like a robot on lower volume, but still repetitive, parts.  

“Traditional robots require expert programmers and large safety cages which creates distance between the human and the robot. These spatial barriers can easily create animosity between human workers and robots. Even worse, if your trusted human workers are not integral to your automation strategy you are creating gaps in understanding and capabilities of automation with your workforce. The BotX Welder is designed to empower the human welder. Your skilled welder will work side-by-side with BotX teaching new parts and letting the BotX Welder do what it does best – repetitive work.”  

Other benefits  

Other reasons to invest in cobots include ease-of-use, versatility, portability, safety, lower costs, and increased capacity. New tax incentives to encourage more spending on automation, as well as the latest automation software, has also led to a wider deployment of robotics, including small job shops. Higher quality parts and more repeatable processes produce increased efficiencies in product development, as labor and time spent fitting up inconsistent parts decreases, along with waste from over-welding, like excess filler metal and shielding gas.  

Vectis Automation’s Cobot Welding Tool – which is powered by Universal Robots’ UR10e and was launched at FABTECH 2019 – is commonly 25-40% less expensive than the all-in cost of a small traditional robot welder. Vectis’ Let’s Weld TogetherTM intuitive programming interface is accessible directly through the UR cobot’s own teach pendant. Programs can be created, saved, and later recalled in order to handle the numerous part numbers typical for high mix/low volume shops. At FABTECH, gasworld was given the opportunity to make its own welding program using Vectis Automation’s Cobot Welding Tool, and to experience its ease-of-use. Vectis recommends the most efficient deployment of automation to be on the smaller, simpler, repetitive parts.  

“The Vectis Cobot Welding Tool is helpful for automating small parts, subassemblies, or even sections of larger parts since it is portable,” Pawley said.  

                                                                                                  

“Oftentimes, the temptation is to automate the large or complex weldment, but cobots are best suited for handling the ‘boring’ smaller parts and allowing the skilled welders to work on the skilled weldments. This also generates buy-in from the shop floor as well, as most welders hate welding those pallets of piece parts or subassemblies.”  

The BotX Welder – developed by Hirebotics, Red-D-Arc, and Airgas – offers the opportunity to hire a robot welder by the hour and utilizes a UR10e cobot for simplicity of programming with cloud monitoring while avoiding the cost of ownership. Manufacturers pay only for the hours the system actually welds, which is ideal for seasonal work or sudden loss of business.  

“Our software empowers companies with short-run production needs to quickly improve quality, consistency and output by leveraging their existing skilled welders,” Goldiez said.  

Cobots also have a smaller footprint compared to traditional, large industrial robots in a welding application which are rigidly mounted to a workcell purposed with one task only and are often isolated from workers for safety by barriers or a cage. A cobot, however, can flexibly be applied to several tasks on the same day in a low-volume, high-mix job shop.  

Goldiez said, “The fact that they’re collaborative and don’t require safety fencing like traditional industrial robots means a smaller footprint for the equivalent working space, less floor space to produce the same size part. In many cases less than half the floor space of traditional automation.”  

Customers can teach BotX the required welds simply via an app on any smartphone or tablet utilizing a library of welding recipes contained in the BotX software developed specifically for the BotX and optimized to work with Airgas’ ARCAL shielding gas. The Hirebotics mobile app allows the welder instead of a programmer to set up new parts in an easy-to-use, friendly interface. Users can monitor their BotX Welder from anywhere in the world via realtime charts and dashboards, monitor consumables, and track live progress of the current weld sequence.  

“One of the key benefits of building the BotX Welder on the Universal Robots platform is kinetic teaching,” Goldiez said.  

“Also, customers can use the mobile app to engage with Hirebotics automation experts as well as Red-D-Arc, Airgas, and Air Liquide welding experts. The Hirebotics mobile app gives customers immediate access to help and support, at any time of the day or night.”  

Bridging the generation gap  

There is also the theory that cobots can contribute to closing the generation gap. The average age of today’s welder in the US is 55, with less than 20% under the age of 35, according to the AWS.  

“We absolutely believe that cobots will entice younger generations to get involved in and excited about manufacturing,” Pawley said.

                                                                                                    

“At the same time, the cobot welding tool can provide a conduit for experienced welders to pass on their immense welding knowledge. Combined, these two facts will allow different generations to work together to solve a common issue – boosting productivity. This exact scenario actually happened recently at one of our customers. The owner said he came back from a meeting to see his most experienced welder working together with a new-hire recent college graduate. The college graduate was leading the programming effort and she was excited about fixturing/layout/sequencing, etc – while the welder with 40 years of experience under the hood was guiding the weld parameter development. It was inspiring to hear a piece of equipment bringing two generations together for a common goal.”

Attitudes are changing towards automation, and more companies are making the jump to automation. Hector Villarreal, President of Illinois-based Weldcoa, a manufacturer of products that store, transport, fill or analyze compressed gas cylinders or cryogenic liquids, told gasworld, “It’s funny, for the first half of my 25 years in this industry I travelled the world telling people, automation is affordable, reliable and can help you grow your business. And then one day, about 10 years ago, people started to call me asking me what kind of automation they should invest in. The changing mindset towards automation has really been amazing.

“About eight years ago I added two slides to my presentations on automation, and one was on Rethink Robotics. At that time, they had come out with the first-ever commercially available co-operative robot. Up to that point I’d never seen a robot that was designed to work with people. The concept made sense to me, so I added a short video of the robot at work with people to my presentation.

“The other slide was on IBM’s Watson AI. I found it remarkable that Watson had beat humans on the TV Gameshow Jeopardy! So, I added five minutes on AI technology. At the time people thought I was kidding about the commercial potential for both technologies. Which today is funny but back then was unimaginable for most people. That’s when I realized that the problem wasn’t the complexity that came with the technology. The problem is that most people can’t imagine how to use the technology until someone shows them how it can be applied to their business.”

And cobots received a lot of interest at FABTECH in Chicago a couple months ago as more consider it an option for 2020.

“At FABTECH, we continually heard ‘I can’t find skilled labor’,” Pawley said.

“Many of those manufacturers have been stuck between a rock and a hard place – unable to find skilled labor while simultaneously unable to justify, hire programmers for, or take the leap into traditional automation. With the UR-powered Vectis Cobot Welding Tool, those manufacturers now have an affordable, versatile, and compact robotic welding option with a quick lead time, DIY setup and programming, and a 30- day return policy to minimize their risk.”  

Challenges ahead

More metal fabricating companies might be making the jump to automation – but it comes with its own challenges. Gaining the customer’s trust when it comes to robots, or cobots, is a big one.

“The main challenge will be changing how people react to the word robot,” Dupon said.

“Using cobot helps this task, however, people still approach the conversation about cobots from a traditional robot mindset. This is a different way of thinking and it takes a fresh approach.”

Goldiez said, “Automation has an allure to manufacturers struggling to find and retain skilled employees, dealing with quality issues, or trying to reduce costs. But automation brings new challenges for many companies. Someone at the company must deal with robot programming, integration to other equipment, gripper design, part presentation, and more.”

First, though, is the challenge to convince the industry to embrace the rise of the cobots.  

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