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If the thought scares you, consider this: It is now becoming safe enough for robots to work alongside people. This development is one of hottest phenomena trending in the world of robotics these days, according to Ai-Ping Hu, PhD, a senior research engineer with the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI), Atlanta, Ga.
“Most industrial robots are surrounded by expensive guard fences and safety features, which can actually exceed the cost of the robot itself,” Dr. Hu says. “A new breed of robot, called a collaborative robot, or co-robot, now has sensors in each joint that can detect physical contact. Similar to an airbag in a car, a co-robot can react to a human presence and stop within a fraction of a second to prevent harm to people.”
The collaborative robot (cobot) market promises to grow exponentially over the next few years, Dr. Hu says, with advanced safety features, enhanced performance capabilities, ease of programming, and increasingly competitive pricing driving the growth.
Cobots were invented in 1996 by J. Edward Colgate, PhD, and Michael Peshkin, PhD, professors in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill.
In their 1997 patent application, they describe a cobot as “an apparatus and method for direct physical interaction between a person and a general purpose manipulator controlled by a computer.”
“The apparatus, known as a collaborative robot or ‘cobot,’ may take a number of configurations common to conventional robots,” they write. “In place of the actuators that move conventional robots, however, cobots use variable transmission elements whose transmission ratio is adjustable under computer control via small servomotors. Cobots thus need few if any powerful, and potentially dangerous, actuators. Instead, cobots guide, redirect, or steer motions that originate with the person.”
Universal Robots USA, Inc.’s (UR) cobots are being employed in the food and agriculture industries along the supply chain, including production, processing, and distribution, says Douglas Peterson, MBA, general manager at UR, Ann Arbor, Mich.
Headquartered in Denmark, UR sold the world’s first commercially viable cobot, the UR5, in 2008, long before the term for this emerging robot class was widely used. A newer model, the UR12 followed in 2012, then a tabletop cobot, the UR3, was introduced in 2015. These cobots’ names come from their payload in kilograms.
“A tremendous benefit of UR cobots arms is that they free up workers from repetitive and dangerous or unpleasant tasks in harsh environments,” Peterson says. “As a result, UR cobots help to reduce physical strain and accidental injuries, while making human operators available for qualitatively higher tasks. Cobots are always powered up and ready to work, with no need to rest. And relative to food safety, the outer casing of the cobots is specifically designed to be washdown capable.”
Peterson reports that UR remains the market leader, with more than 10,000 cobots sold globally to date, some 60 percent of the market share.
From Fixed to Flexible
Axium Foods, Inc., South Beloit, Ill., a mid-sized salty snack food manufacturer whose customers include private label and co-manufacturing companies, made a transition from
fixed automation to flexible in early 2016 with the purchase of two UR5 collaborative robots.
“We have deployed these robots in several unique applications,” says Jerry Stokely, MBA, Axium’s president. “In each application, the robot is the center of the total work cell performing either tasks at higher speed than humans or tasks that, over time, lead to repetitive trauma injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome.”