Fear not the cobot

March 21, 2016 // By Jonathan Wilkins
Discussing the newest and perhaps most exciting realm of industrial robotics: collaborative robots.

The world’s first industrial robot was an idea conceived after a conversation about science fiction novels between inventors George Devol and Joseph Eagleburger in 1954. Six years later, Unimate had secured its place in the robotic hall of fame as the world’s first industrial robot. It was then put to work on the General Motors assembly line in 1961. Inevitably, the public were sceptical of the safety issues surrounding Unimate. And with only Gort, the laser-firing robot from the 1950's thriller "The Day the Earth Stood Still" for reference, who can blame them? But after 50 years of practice, today’s industrial robots are a much less scary affair.

The term ‘collaborative’ simply describes robots that can operate safely alongside their human counterparts on the factory floor. Traditionally, robotic machinery was constricted to work inside robotic work cells with physical barriers to protect human workers.  Today, the new generation of robots is completely cage free. But that doesn’t mean these robots are totally devoid of health and safety features.

Unlike industrial robots of the past, collaborative robots are specifically designed to work safely around people. In fact, since ABB Robotics introduced YuMi, it’s two-armed collaborative robot, earlier this year, it has been independently certified as safe to work hand-in-hand with humans on the same assembly tasks.

To prevent accidents with human workers, sensors are installed on the robot that react to human contact and monitor the location of humans on the factory floor. This way, if anybody does get too close the machinery, it automatically shuts down. What’s more, the strength, speed and force of this collaborative machinery is limited to avoid causing serious injury if contact does occur.

In addition to this, many collaborative robots require little to no skill to program. Most are so simple that anybody who can use a smartphone or tablet has the ability to program them, a world away from the complex robots of just a decade ago, which required highly skilled technicians to program and watch over them while they operated.