Universal Robots Just Sold Their 25,000th Collaborative Robot
Universal Robots’ 25000th cobot announced at IMTS, with special edition gold highlightsUniversal Robots
Ask anyone: working with robots is the stuff of the future. But collaborative robots (cobots) are already well on their way to our workplaces, and this sector is now growing the fastest within the robotics industry. On Monday (September 10) Universal Robots sold its 25,000th (gold-plated) cobot to Kay Manufacturing and cemented its 60% market share, so robot colleagues are by no means resigned to fiction any longer. While cobots currently make up 3% of all robot sales, that figure is expected to reach 34% by 2025 — and with global robotics spending estimated to reach $13 billion by that time, we will surely be seeing a lot more of them in industry in the years to come.
Cobots, as opposed to purely industrial robots that we have gotten used to over the last decade or so, are more sophisticated than their precursors, with extra built-in safety features and sensors so that they can successfully work alongside humans. This allows them to work outside restricted areas in the factory, to assist in fine motor tasks like welding that must be done in situ and transport cargo without risk of injuring biological colleagues. But with a brief but gruesome history of industrial robot accidents to contend with, can we be sure that they are safe enough to work with us, or that we will stay vigilant enough to avoid disaster?
Can we work together?
In 1981, maintenance engineer Kenji Urada was working in a Kawasaki plant, fixing a broken machine. Whilst inside the robot’s cage, he accidentally switched it on and was crushed to death by its hydraulic arm. More recently in 2015, a 22-year-old contractor was setting up a robot in a Volkswagen plant to grab and manipulate auto parts, when the arm mistook him for a component and subsequently crushed him against a metal plate.
Incidents like these are few and far between (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration identified just 27 fatalities associated with robots from 1984 to 2013) but the grisly nature of robot accidents and the horror associated with unknown bugs or unaccountable behavior from robots, does nothing to mitigate the public perception of cobots. Nevertheless, advances in safety mechanisms are putting a lot of these fears to bed. Features requiring manual authorization in certain situations, sophisticated sensors to identify humans in the vicinity, and strict instructions to err on the side of caution (or do nothing if in doubt) are now commonplace, allowing robotics companies to slowly but surely persuade us that cobots aren’t so bad.
The President of Kay Manufacturing, Brian Pelke, is working to spread a positive message around robot colleagues, stating that ‘the cobots didn’t replace any employees, [and] we were able to meet increased production demand with our existing workforce’. The future of work might be on its way faster than many expect, but for those that have already made the leap, cobots are nothing more than a fantastic productivity tool, and will simply help humans achieve more with the resources we have.
Brian Pelke says the cobots in Kay Manufacturing have ‘saved twenty minutes of operator time per hour… freeing up our staff to handle more value-added tasks.’ This aspect of working with robots is what we should be focusing on, and if we can harness their abilities with enough safeguards in place to ensure that accidents are a thing of the past, we could see AI cobots in many more settings than just manufacturing, far sooner than we think.