Rise of the cobots

Today’s industrial revolution has seen machines increasingly replace traditional roles around the world. However, this same technology could also enhance jobs in the electrical sector by taking over strenuous and dull tasks, working side-by-side with contractors and freeing up minds for more creative and rewarding assignments. It’s time to introduce the robot’s friendly cousin – the cobot


One of the most predominant and promising trends in robotics over the last years has been the increased prevalence of collaborative robots or ‘cobots’. As the name indicates, these type of robots are collaborative – and thus often regarded as more friendly than the often bigger industrial robots.

It has been less than a decade since we saw the first cobot prototypes intended for use in job sites. We thought of these as early prototypes that sometime in the future – maybe – would pave the way for subsequent, more sophisticated versions.

Today, Amazon has deployed more than 200,000 robots in its warehouses, Boston Dynamics offers a range of different collaborative robots and Hilti has launched a ceiling drilling robot for the construction and electrical contractor industry.

There’s no doubt that the future is already here when it comes to cobots, with the growth rate of deployment around the world now exceeding 25 per cent annually. This growth is not just related to the growing take-up of cobots, but also to a convergence between cobots and traditional industrial robots, which are increasingly adopting some of the benefits of cobots as a result of advances in sensors, machine vision and motion control.

In the future, cobots won’t just operate in factories, but in offices and job sites too. So don’t think big and bulky machines – think small and agile.


What are cobots? And how will they affect future work?

To understand the impact that collaborative robots can have, it’s essential to understand exactly what they are. Basically, they are a niche group of robots designed to interact physically with human workers in a shared workplace.

These compact robotic assistants were created to address the safety challenges posed by traditional industrial robots. A ‘protective stop’ is triggered when a cobot comes in contact with a human, ensuring that the movement of the cobot is halted and does not harm the person. From protective stop the cobot can resume its task upon human command without resetting or rebooting.

With cobots, the idea is for humans and robots to be interdependent and safely focus on what each of them does best. This makes them an especially ideal solution for being assistants to craftsmen of all trades, performing tasks that would otherwise be too difficult for the human or robot to do alone.

The consistent labour shortage is an unfortunate trend in the construction industry, but cobots may be able to ease that burden and one day replace human labourers for low-skilled work.


Robots and cobots: the same but different

The difference between cobots and robots is actually not about technology, it’s about the type of work they do and how they do it. According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), robots are automated tools designed for independent use in industrial, domestic and professional environments. In cobotics, the difference in the automated technology is in their collaborative intention.

Cobots are robots that are not meant to replace their human counterparts; instead they are meant to work directly with them with the intention of improving productivity and enhancing safety.

Since cobots are not entirely independent, they are meant to have some degree of supervision while working. Because of the less stringent safety requirements, cobots are also fairly simple to programme compared to (autonomous) robots. This allows their human counterparts, the robot operator, to make modifications to their actions on-site when necessary.

Designed with an emphasis on safety, cobots typically incorporate rounded shapes to prevent human injuries and sensors to control the accuracy of their actions. Functions to stop movement are programmed into cobots along with power and force limitations to minimise the possibility of human injuries.


Types of work for cobots

One of the key drivers for successful robotisation and cobotisation is job enhancement. According to a number of epidemiological and ergonomic studies, the construction sector is in the top three occupations for work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs), along with the manufacturing and meat processing industries.

This issue has persisted for decades, and despite many efforts, we have seen deterioration rather than improvement compared to other industries.

According to a report from The Health and Safety Laboratory, one of the reasons for this is that tasks carried out within construction trades can vary throughout the day, but can also be repetitive.

Construction workers may have little or no control over which task can be carried out at a particular time, as this can depend on environmental conditions such as inclement weather when working outdoors or at height, and also upon other conditions such as the delivery of materials or the progress of other trades.

Tasks are often performed at maximum pace to meet deadlines, placing the worker at increased risk of not only chronic WMSDs, but also of acute injuries. Cobots can therefore be deployed for tasks that might otherwise be thought of as repetitive, tedious or even dangerous, but essential. When we are evaluating job tasks suitable for cobotisation, we often refer to this as the search for tasks which are ticking the boxes of the 3Ds: dangerous, dirty and dull, i.e. repetitive.

This may decrease labour costs and result in the reduction of repetitive or physically demanding jobs for workers who can be reassigned to more mentally demanding or creative tasks that can be completed alongside the collaborative actions of cobots.

Cobotic applications in construction and electrical contracting include:

  • Logistics: to transport heavy materials or equipment from one part of a building site to another

  • Prefabrication: for small assembly line production and transportation of components

  • Assembly: to perform specific tasks, such as tightening screws, with adequate accuracy

  • Inspection: in areas that are difficult for humans to access.

Cobots do not typically require as much power to operate as standard robots since they are often relatively small and agile.

Because of the less stringent safety requirements for cobots, one can allow more of the programming to be done by the end users themselves.

This gives the option to deploy cobots for multiple tasks, and they can be moved from one project or job site to another when needed.


“The idea is for humans and robots to be interdependent and safely focus on what each of them does best”

What not to expect from a cobot

Though cobots find application in industries like healthcare, polymers and plastic, food and beverages, automotive, machining and agriculture to name a few, there are still hurdles to overcome.

The flipside of being collaborative, small and agile, are reduced workload, force and speed compared to an industrial robot. A typical workload as of today for a cobot is up to 15kg, limiting the application possibilities, i.e. cobots are not suited for heavy duty tasks of less repetitive nature.

Cobots are also usually less accurate than their non-collaborative cousins, which is reflected in the price tag. ‘Blind’ cobots may have an accuracy of 5mm. However, equipped with sensors such as distance sensors, cameras or in cooperation with a total station or a laser tracker, it is the accuracy of the sensors that determines the accuracy of the cobot. By adding the right sensor to the feedback loop, the accuracy could be reduced to 1mm. It all depends on the application.

As cobots are introduced to new applications, their software developers, hardware engineers and operators will face a quite steep learning curve. Both humans and machines need training and learning to ensure that everything is being done properly and guarantees return on investment.

A tenfold productivity increase over the first year of operation is not unusual, illustrating the complexity, but also the potential, of developing an efficient collaboration between humans and advanced machines.


Cobots on site

Since cobots are designed for taking over dull or repetitive tasks and allowing employees to instead take on other tasks that require human efforts, companies can upskill their existing staff to engage in more meaningful work.

An example here is drilling robots, which are now commercially available. Drilling in ceilings is necessary, but is a strenuous and repetitive task that most electricians would prefer to avoid if possible due to the repetitive nature and static work postures, contributing to the occurrence of low back and musculoskeletal symptoms.

These are conditions also referred to as repetitive strain injuries (RSI), cumulative trauma disorders (CTD) or occupational overuse syndromes (OOS), which are all well known and described in scientific literature.

Since a drilling robot also could drill holes and document the job for all trades at a job site, the overall productivity is increased. In fact, a new business opportunity opens up in offering ready-drilled and documented buildings.

And why shouldn’t electrical contractors take on the leading role? After all, they’re already covering electrical wiring, communications infrastructure and fire and safety at a job site. Smaller and more lightweight cobots like Boston Dynamics’ ‘Spot’ are suitable both for inspection tasks and for continuous monitoring at a job site, documenting as-built information and interacting with the BIM model. Robotising data-gathering tasks fits into a fully digital workflow, starting with planning (BIM), through data gathering (e.g. scanning), to execution like drilling.

Activities like logistics, cleaning and waste management all contain subsets of tasks associated with being dull and dirty. When left for cobots to do, it will free up productive time for the human workers to focus on their core work tasks.

When a fleet of different cobots are operating at the same job site, there will be a need to coordinate them, compile data that is collected and download new, updated task plans to the fleet of cobots. The cobots will also require supervision and service.

All of these activities, and in particular supervision and service, represent a huge future business opportunity for electrical contractors, as these by nature easily could upskill their workforce to also take on these new tasks as an extension to current business.


What will the future bring?

We’re still in the early days of the development of versatile, mobile and collaborative robots, but as they learn and adapt, productivity will increase. The human workers will also learn and adapt, and the robots will be designed to do an increasing number of tasks. Altogether, this forms an adaptable robotic ecosystem pushing new boundaries.

With a rapidly increasing market, more research and development (R&D) efforts will be put into development of cobots with higher workloads and development of new applications.

An inherently safe system can be put to use more freely. In combination with the other small increments of innovation such as lower weight, neater size, lower price, easier safety certification and more intuitive movement patterns, cobots will inevitably shift around on the business models and value chains compared to traditional robots.

Thanks to this innovation, they have already become a new trend that needs to be noticed – even by industries or professions that normally have had nothing to do with traditional robots.

Despite the rather pessimistic predictions in the prize-winning book by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Martin Ford, Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, cobots actually represent a new and more friendly breed of robots, intended for taking away strenuous job tasks and increasing job attractiveness.

Offering cobot operation as a service at job sites could be a new business opportunity offered by electrical contractors, creating new types of job which require technical insight in the electric and electronics domain, digital skills and a general interest in electrified objects. Sounds like something suitable for an electrician, doesn’t it?

Many companies around the construction and electrical world are turning to cobots to improve their employees’ health and safety performance, and optimise operational productivity and product quality.

It won’t be cobots that put you out of business – but rather the companies that are quickest to adapt and work alongside our new cobotic friends.

 

Roger Flølo is the CEO of nLink AS, a Norwegian-based company that designs and develops mobile robots that solve real life problems. For further information about cobots, visit www.nlink.no


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