flexible is the new fast: how collaborative robots are redefining automation

in rethinking robotics by Eric Foellmer

Baxter, the smart, collaborate robot at Praxis Packaging

Do your production operations need to be more flexible than they were 5 years ago?  If you answered “yes,” you’re certainly not alone.  And if you answered “no,” you’ll probably be changing your answer within the next five years.  If not sooner.

We are entering a new era of manufacturing – one in which mass production has given way to mass customization.  A global marketplace, built on rich e-commerce platforms and make-to-order product configurations, has made it a great time to be a consumer – but a challenging one to be a manufacturer.

As global wages rise, companies are realizing that the financial value of off-shoring their labor has diminished greatly, while the inherent risks to product quality and supply chain disruptions have remained very much intact.   As a result, manufacturers have sought to automate their high mix operations – but traditional industrial robots are poorly suited for this task.

Why?  The fact is, conventional robots were designed for speed, precision and payload.  Not flexibility.  They were built to do one thing at a time, in one place, over and over again.  And for high volume, low mix production, they have excelled at this for decades – and still do.

But there are only a handful of industries and applications for which traditional industrial robots are well suited.  In fact, it’s been estimated by Boston Consulting Group that up to 90% of manufacturing tasks are still not being automated today.

As an exciting and emerging new category of automation, collaborative robots were developed specifically to address the lower volume, higher mix applications that have historically been impractical to automate.  They are well suited for flexible manufacturing environments because they’re safe to deploy around people with no guarding, easier to program than traditional robots, and more capable of being moved from line to line, and job to job, as needed.  They also tend to be less expensive to purchase and deploy than their caged counterparts, which means a faster return on investment for their owners.  As a result, they’re showing up in plants of all sizes, in all areas of the world – even in job shops that have never deployed robots before.

If you’ve never seen one of these solutions in action, check out the latest videos of our smart, collaborative robots Baxter and Sawyer, or visit us at an upcoming event.  You’ll be glad you did – especially once “flexible” becomes as important as “fast” to your business.


About the Author

Eric Foellmer

As Rethink Robotics’ Manager of Product Marketing and Marketing Communications, Eric’s job is to tell the company's remarkable story to the world – through our website, sales tools, videos, and the many events where Baxter and Sawyer are featured. When he’s not hanging out with robots, he enjoys hanging out with his family, surfing iTunes, playing golf or watching the Red Sox.

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