Robots that work together with humans and take over unpleasant or dull tasks, thus making the production process more cost-efficient: collaborative robots, in short cobots, can satisfy this need. But the technology is still lagging behind the need, which is why collaborative robots are still a technological hopeful and not yet a star technology.
The situation today
In Switzerland, the situation remains unchanged: there are many SMEs featuring small lot sizes, a high variance and high unit labour costs, making the use of collaborative robots attractive. Still, the integration of collaborative robots into production is slow, both in Switzerland and internationally. In Switzerland, cobot sales figures are decreasing and there is some disillusionment. A cobot is not just an intuitively programmable work colleague surrogate. That is why today we still find cobots in low-frequency tasks, like loading and unloading of machined parts. These and other tasks for cobots commonly fall under the “4D”: dull, dirty, dangerous, disallowed.
Using cobots will become attractive once there is a change in thinking and products and production infrastructure are “designed for automation”, for example by creating suitable shapes or by using fiducials. As a matter of fact, the key technologies required for a productive use of cobots are advancing steadily, but very slowly. Progress is expected in the following realms: grippers with integrated compliance and rapid force measurement, cheaper and more robust object recognition, and intuitive programmability. For these areas, it would be wise for large and small enterprises to consult with possible research partners prior to purchase, in particular with universities of applied science working in collaborative robotics. Such institutions can suggest effective approaches to reduce costs while increasing the robustness of the production process, or the possibility of providing an unbiased assessment of robots. Long-term research focuses on intuitive, task-based programming and on human-robot collaboration with intent detection and dynamic path adjustments.