what in the world is a collaborative robot? (part 1 of 3)

in rethinking robotics, robots @ work by Eric Foellmer

There’s a tremendous amount of buzz these days around the concept of “collaborative” robots. This important and emerging category of automation is literally redefining how and where robots can be used in production environments – and by doing so, is also changing what types of companies have access to them. When you say you need a manufacturing robot, you can no longer limit your definition to the high-speed, high-cost, caged industrial robots which have been a staple of high volume, low mix environments for decades. Today, especially for lower volume, higher mix applications, your search can also include a collaborative robot – one that is inherently more affordable, more flexible, and safe to operate next to in a production environment.

Baxter the Collaborative Robot at Rodon

But what exactly is a collaborative robot? How is it being used in manufacturing today? What are the challenges and opportunities associated with introducing them into your environment? And when will we start to see more of these flexible solutions showing up on production lines? In my 3-part blog series on collaborative robots, I’ll cover these topics and more.

What’s in a name?

Many people define a “collaborative” robot as simply one that can operate without safety cages. While that is certainly an important aspect of the category, I personally feel it misses the point a bit in terms of what is intended by the term “collaborative.” When Rethink Robotics pioneered the category, we envisioned collaborative robots to be entirely safe to operate next to people in a production environment – with force sensing, back-drivable motors, and a moderate velocity that combine to reduce the likelihood and impact of a collision with a human.

But we also see a collaborative robot as interacting with its human counterparts on the line – by being simple enough for non-engineers to train it by hand, communicating its understanding of the task, illustrating where it’s going next, and other behaviors that help make it “just another worker on the line.” In fact, at Rethink Robotics, we often use the term “interactive” instead of “collaborative” when describing our flagship robot, Baxter, because the standard definition of the term “collaborative” has become overly broad in my opinion.

What are the advantages of collaborative robots?

Collaborative robots offer many advantages over traditional industrial robots for certain applications. They are safe to operate next to people without cages, so they can be utilized in highly manual production lines that have historically been off-limits to traditional robotic systems. Most robots in the category are also significantly easier to program than their industrial counterparts – in Baxter’s case, even line workers and other non-engineers can train the robot to do a task.

They are also quite flexible, meaning they can be reprogrammed quickly and easily to work on different tasks in a facility. This helps to maximize their return on investment since you’re able to utilize them across multiple lines in a plant. And speaking of investment, collaborative robots are generally far less expensive to deploy than industrial robots, especially when considering their streamlined process for integration – an effort that can often add 2-to-5 times the base cost of a typical industrial robot.

In parts 2 and 3 of my ‘What in the world is a Collaborative Robot’ blog, I’ll examine a bit of the history around this revolutionary category of automation, how collaborative robots typically differ from their industrial counterparts, and where I think we’ll start to see the largest volume of collaborative robots being adopted in the coming decade.

Thanks for collaborating. Stay tuned.


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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