The robotic market has demonstrated stellar growth, accelerating at a rate of approximately 14% per year over the past 3-4 years. Within this overall robotic industry, however, there is a sub-segment of collaborative robots that is experiencing an unprecedented compounded average growth rate of 45%, according to expert Isaac Zolotarev, President of DFS Engineering LLC. Zolotarev forecasts growth will accelerate 20% between now and 2025, making the industry worth $1 billion, up from $420 million in 2017.
What are collaborative robots?
Collaborative robots (also known as ‘cobots’) are designed to bring humans and robots closer together in the shared workplace, allowing engineers to design tasks that leverage the best skill sets between humans and the machines. These opportunities cover many sectors including manufacturing, logistics, professional services and others. At this time, nearly all major robot manufacturers offer robot models designed for the collaborative environment.
Collaborative robots can be divided into the following three categories:
- Power and force limiting robots: Robots that have built-in limits on power and speed, designed using either rounded surfaces for safety reasons or smart skins with built-in sensors to detect contact with humans or other obstructions to avoid injury or damage;
- Mobile robots: Autonomous, intelligent mobile platforms that are able to plan safe routes between destinations by relying on knowledge they acquire about their facility and their surroundings. The mobile platforms can carry either a single- or double-arm manipulator or collaborative robot;
- Traditional robot with added safety features: This category consists of standard industrial robots coupled with additional layers of safety sensors that are able to detect people approaching and either stop or significantly slow down upon breach of a safety zone.
Rather than replacing manual labor, collaborative robots are intended to work with operators together and produce a strong package of skills that neither robots nor operators can possess on their own. Typically, collaborative robots are lighter, smaller and smarter than their industrial counterparts. Together they rely on a multitude of enabling technology based on perceiving their environment, using artificial intelligence to recognize and learn. Through the use of sensory devices, large amounts of data can be acquired and quickly processed enabling the machine to make snap decisions ensuring operator safety. It is a combination of these capabilities, coupled with the mechanical characteristics of traditional robots such as high repeatability, stamina, speed availability of many auxiliary tools, that make cobots applicable to a multitude of production applications that were previously not possible.
Though predicted growth of cobots is at dizzying heights, the industry nevertheless faces many challenges such as a lack of uniform standards for collaborative robot installations, and the complex planning, training and negotiation with unions in relation to breaking safety paradigms for a collaborative environment. Many feel that the popular forecasts are over-inflated; meaning the industry may be creating unrealistic expectations. Further, it is difficult to bring new products to market in a sustainable manner, which means that start-ups with good robotic expertise end up having limited application expertise. Lastly, implementation of these high-tech solutions requires trained personnel able to deal with business technology, which poses a big challenge for the North American market in particular.
Yet hype generated around the cobot still persists. New players are expected to enter the robot industry, both driving innovation and lower prices. Predicted high growth rates are driven by the fact that business competition on a global scale requires continuous modernization of production facilities, coupled with a decline in the product life cycle and an increase in the variety of products being manufactured. Continuous quality improvement requires sophisticated robot systems. Lastly, an aging workforce in developed countries is a contributing driver.
While technological developments are expected to drive collaborative robots, likewise R&D will drive advancements in service robots, including fast-food preparation, medical lab technician, and order picking in large warehouses. Traditional robots will not be left behind, but will also benefit by becoming more capable due to the collaborative robot technology advancement. The current cobot forecasts may prove to be over-hyped, though it is quite certain that the Industry will continue to grow at a very high rate with the roll-out of new, competitive offerings. Established robot makers who have the know-how and resources will leverage their existing customers to jointly develop new sought-after applications. This is an industry that is predicted to have a bright future for many years ahead.
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