Out of the cages: Here comes the cobots

Mikkel Stein Knudsen and Jari Kaivo-oja:

Forbes, The Guardian, and Financial Times have written about them. The US Department of Commerce lists it as one of 5 Manufacturing Technology Trends to Watch in 2019. Cobots – short for ‘collaborative robots’ – are increasingly entering into industrial manufacturing, profoundly changing the ways in which humans and robots interact.

As one research article puts it, “robots have long left the cages of industrial settings: They work together with humans – collaboratively” (Korn et al., 2018). Smart Cobots are a key technology informing the futures of manufacturing; our research topic in the large Strategic Research Council-project Manufacturing 4.0.

What are cobots?

Collaborative robots differ from traditional industrial robots precisely in the direct interaction with human workers. They are intended to e.g. handle a shared payload without the need for conventional safety cages or separating protective measures. They are generally small, lightweight, mobile and flexible units, and they enable – at least in theory – organisations to leverage the strengths and endurance of robots with the tacit knowledge and agile decision-making skills of humans. Both humans and robots have crucial advantages (Fast-Berglund et al., 2016) – while robots ace repetitive and monotonous tasks, humans remain the most flexible resource in the system. Humans still handling unexpected and unplanned tasks better that their automated co-workers. A human-robotic collaborative approach also proved superior in experimental research settings compared to a similar purely robotic process (Bloss, 2016).

With its focus on flexibility the paradigm of cobots aligns well paradigms of Industry 4.0 – driving at increased automation and increased efficiency in parallel with increasingly flexible production processes, small batch sizes and mass customization.

A sector on the up

Industry forecasts for the near future market for collaborative robots are wildly positive, from global revenues of $7.6 bn in 2027 to the exceptionally optimistic 2019-prediction from the Robotics Industries Association of a $34 billion cobot market by 2026. This will require exponential growth from the current global market of around $600 million in 2018, which in itself was 50% higher than the year before (Sharma, 2019). The academic research output on cobots is also rapidly growing, as the assessment of articles indexed in Web of Science (Figure 1) shows.

Fig 1. Articles indexed in Web of Science with “collaborative robot*” or cobot* as title or keyword (From Knudsen & Kaivo-oja, 2019)

Until now, Finland has not been at the centre of this research. Out of a total of 496 articles in Web of Science published since 2015 (search: 1.1.2019), only 3 are affiliated with Finland. In a ranking of countries based on this data, Finland places 32th. A recent report for the Ministry of Finance in Finland (Rousku et al, 2019) also identified this problem, as well as collaborative robots as a key growth market, asking (p. 46): “Can Finland afford not to take a slice of a market that generates new wealth and new vitality for business and society alike?” A very good question – indeed.

Cobots may provide answers to megatrends

One of the reasons the future could be bright for collaborative robots is that they can answer to a number of different societal megatrends. As the research paradigm on cobots matures and moves away from strictly technological concerns, these links between societal drivers and cobots should be explored in much further detail.

An example, already prominently suggested in the literature, is that cobots may reduce ergonomic challenges and improve occupational safety and health e.g. in factory settings. By reducing the physical workload for workers, cobots can also enable work environments more responsive to older employees – a highly significant advantage given the changing demographics of labour markets across most industrialized nations.

Key global trends to 2030
(from ESPAS, 2015)
Potential role of cobots
A richer and older human race characterised by an expanding global middle class and greater inequalities. Enabling inclusive labour markets more responsive to older employees, employees with disabilities.

Providing a work environment more responsive to human factors, ergonomic and OS&H concerns.

A more vulnerable process of globalisation led by an ’economic G3’. ‘Bringing manufacturing back home’; cobots as enabler of competitive manufacturing in high-cost environments.
A transformative industrial and technological revolution. A ‘gateway into factory automation’, enabler of semi-automated manufacturing choosing select elements of Industry 4.0 for optimized production process.
A growing nexus of climate change, energy and competition for resources. Improved resource efficiency, enabler of circular economy and remanufacturing
(Sarc et al., 2019; Huang et al., 2019).
Changing power, interdependence and fragile multilateralism.

In addition, collaborative robotics will be at the absolute forefront of the development of human-machine interactions, which will help shape important parts of our lives in the coming decades. Unlike most of our everyday interaction with machine learning-algorithms, our interaction with cobots has a distinct physical – see, feel and touch – element to it.

We therefore believe that understanding the topic of cobots, envisioning their deployment, and exploring both preferable and undesirable futures of and with cobots must be prominent future research topics.

Fig 2. Current frontiers of cobot research (based on Knudsen & Kaivo-oja, 2019).

Figure 2 shows some of the current frontiers of cobot research and technology, based on our initial literature review. For each of these pillars many research questions are rapidly arising, and they deserve our attention. Because robots are moving out of the cages and into a space near you.

Industrial robots have traditionally worked separately from humans, behind fences, but this is changing with the emergence of industrial cobots. Industrial robots have traditionally worked separately from humans, behind fences, but this is changing with the emergence of industrial cobots. To sum up, emerging cobot issue requires more attention in the field of Industry 4.0/Manufacturing 4.0. Cobots, or collaborative robots, are robots intended to interact with humans in a shared space or to work safely in close proximity. Service robots can be considered to be cobots as they are intended to work alongside humans. This “cobot approach” is very promising, because it focus on human-robot interaction from the beginning of industrial process planning. Typically, sensors and software are needed to assure good collaborative behaviour.

Summary

It is important to note that cognitive aspects and cognitive ergonomics are highly relevant for new digitalized work life. The IFR (Institute for Occupational Safety and Health of the German Social Accident Insurance) defines four types of collaborative manufacturing applications: (1) Co-existence Cobots: Human and robot work alongside each other, but with no shared workspace, (2) Sequential Collaboration Cobots: Human and robot share all or part of a workspace but do not work on a part or machine at the same time, (3) Co-operation Cobots: Robot and human work on the same part or machine at the same time, and both are in motion and (4) Responsive Collaboration Cobot: The robot responds in real-time to the worker’s motion.

All these types of cobots provide interesting possibilities and challenges for Industry 4.0/Manufacturing 4.0 activities. Are we ready to face these challenges?

Mikkel Stein Knudsen
Project Researcher (M.Sc., Pol. Science), Finland Futures Research Centre, Turku School of Economics, University of Turku    

Jari Kaivo-oja
Research Director, Finland Futures Research Centre, Turku School of Economics, University of Turku.

***

The project Manufacturing 4.0 has received funding from the Finnish Strategic Research Council [grant number 313395]. The project “Platforms of Big Data Foresight (PLATBIDAFO)” has received funding from European Regional Development Fund (project No 01.2.2-LMT-K-718-02-0019) under grant agreement with the Research Council of Lithuania (LMTLT).

***

References

Picture copyright Universal Robots A/S, case Hofmann

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