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4 reasons why collaborative robotics is the answer to SME automation

With technology becoming an integral part of business operations, several organizations are investing in robotics and automation to streamline their processes, create a safe work environment, and boost profitability.

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), in particular, are increasingly relying on automation to gain a significant increment in their process-and-workforce efficiency.

However, most SMEs are reluctant to invest in robotics as conventional industrial robots are complex, expensive, and require large shop floor space for deployment. Moreover, the payback period for these robots is extremely long, making them expensive for SMEs. 

Collaborative robots or cobots are easy to program, inexpensive, and intended to work alongside, interact, and assist human workers, thereby creating an entry point for introducing automation in SMEs.

The market for collaborative robots is expected to grow at a CAGR of 60 percent and exceed the market value of $1 billion by 2020. So, collaborative robots are on the verge of revolutionizing the manner in which small and medium-sized enterprises function.

Here’s why collaborative robots are critical in introducing automation in SMEs.

1. Enhanced human safety

For SMEs desiring to embrace robotics and automation, employee safety is top priority. Complex and heavy industrial robots are usually locked behind fences or cages as their rapid and heavy movements are considered unsafe for human interaction, making them unbefitting for SMEs.

Collaborative robots, on the other hand, are lightweight and abide by the standard ISO/TS 15066 safety guidelines. These guidelines help small-and-medium-sized manufacturers ensure that humans can safely work with the deployed cobots.

For instance, the ISO/TS 15066 guidelines mandate manufacturing firms to conduct workspace evaluation before installing cobots. Similarly, safety standards such as EN 60204-1, UL 1740, and NFPA 79 offer a reliable reference to test the environmental factors such as temperature, altitude, humidity, and electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) that will affect the robots’ functionality.

Secondly, various types of cobots, like power-and-force-limiting, safety-monitored-stop, speed-and-separation-monitoring, and hand-guiding cobots, are available to suit the firm’s safety and manufacturing needs. For instance, power-and-force-limited cobots are embedded with sensors that know how much force a human being can endure.

They are programmed to instantly cease activity if an obstacle is encountered. Similarly, sensors can make the cobot stop or slow down its operation when a worker approaches or works within a defined perimeter.

Furthermore, cobots are designed to fulfil repetitive and injury-prone tasks at the same or slower speed than human workers. For instance, cobots are commonly used in the production of ultrasonic or digital water flow meters. In this process, cobots are used to manage high-temperature processes and hazardous tasks, such as electric-circuit testing, thereby converting the workplace into a co-habitable environment for technology and humans.

2. Easy deployment

Deploying conventional robots can take several weeks or even months. Moreover, these robots necessitate the presence of skilled robotics experts to assemble and program the components. SMEs often hesitate to invest in robotics because they cannot afford to spend much time, effort, and money on installing such robots. Moreover, these enterprises cannot afford to hire a qualified robotics programmer for managing these complex robots.

Collaborative robots, on the contrary, are easy to set up as they are usually trained by demonstration. In fact, most cobots can be deployed in less than a day. The operator can train and program the robotic arm to follow the desired path and accomplish tasks.

Moreover, technology has made it possible for cobots to offer advanced features that make them ready for on-the-spot use. For instance, several cobots come with adaptive grippers, suction cups, and object-recognition sensors that offer unique benefits during the manufacturing process, thereby increasing the production output.

Additionally, the existing workforce can be trained to program the cobot to accomplish the tasks. The displays provided are highly user-friendly, evading the need to hire a special robotics team for the purpose.

3. Improved flexibility

As mass customization is becoming the norm in the manufacturing domain, small and medium-sized enterprises are faced with the challenge of establishing and maintaining systems that offer flexibility to meet diverse customer needs.

Though specialized industrial robots can improve the productivity of a firm, they are not suitable for SMEs. These manufacturing firms typically have small production batches and changing product requirements, making it impossible for them to deploy industrial robots that are tough to reprogram.

Alternatively, collaborative robots are lightweight and easy to reprogram, thus allowing quick change-overs with minimal setup time and effort. With no fencing required, these robots can be moved around the shop floor on wheels to complete various tasks.

4. Extremely cost-effective

The selling price for cobots is about $28,000 versus the traditional industrial robots costing $80,000. Since these new-generation cobots are not as expensive as industrial robots, SMEs can easily invest in them to gain access to automation and boost their productivity.

Additionally, to calculate the return on investment (ROI) on an industrial robotic application, you must consider the initial investment and the additional expenses, namely the accessories, deployment, upgrades, and maintenance charges the firm may incur.

On the other hand, deploying a collaborative robot is easy and doesn’t involve the above-mentioned expenses. Once a firm invests in a robot gripper or a robotic arm, no other in application-specific investment is required.

The machinist merely needs to plug in and program the device to start operation. Consequently, when compared to traditional robots, cobots have a shorter payback period and a higher ROI, making them ideal for SMEs.

In summary

Recent developments in the field of robotics and automation, artificial intelligence, and connected technology are giving rise to a new generation of collaborative robots that work side-by-side with their human counterparts, thereby reducing the fatigue of performing repetitive and dangerous tasks in workers.

Small and medium-sized enterprises can hugely benefit from such advanced automation solutions. Therefore, SME owners are increasingly investing in collaborative robots to boost their productivity and profitability, and promote a safe work environment.

The above-mentioned points will help you appreciate how collaborative robots offer an affordable automation solution to SMEs across the globe.

About the author: Ann Neal (Twitter: @Ann_G_Neal) is a writer who covers technology and business. She frequently contributes to ABestMeter.