Understanding Cobots and Why They Matter in Today’s World

Cobots, Not Robots.

If I were to ask you what your thoughts were on robots, you may come up with a variety of answers. Perhaps you envision C3PO from Star Wars, Bender from Futurama, or one of the Transformers. Building robots that are tireless and can carry out tasks without any assistance could be the first concept that comes to mind. Additionally, you may contemplate other futuristic advancements such as robot pets or robot teachers.

Nevertheless, robots are proving to be incredibly useful in a way that may not have been immediately apparent. It appears that robots are being considered as colleagues within organisations, and this trend is likely to continue in the foreseeable future due to the rise in the use of collaborative robots, or ‘cobots’.

To begin, let’s define cobots.

Robots are typically associated with physical devices that can be either sentient or non-sentient and are used to carry out tasks that are dangerous, expensive, tedious, or hazardous. This type of robotics is widely used in many different industries such as manufacturing, healthcare, energy generation, warehousing and others. It is generally accepted that robots have a primary purpose of completing tasks that could be hazardous to humans.

In order to achieve the goal of replacing human workers, modern industrial robots are typically designed for settings where there is little or no human presence. To ensure that robots do not cause harm to people or their environment, certain restrictions have been put in place to regulate their operation.

Despite the fact that traditional robots are designed to work independently, with no direct contact with human operators, collaborative robots (cobots) have been developed to operate in close proximity to people. Cobots are able to work in harmony with humans, allowing them to collaborate in the completion of tasks. This necessitates an unconventional design of the robot, allowing them to be safely integrated into the workplace. Consequently, cobots are able to interact with their environment in a more natural, coordinated way than traditional robots.

The evolution of cobots has provided a compelling indication of their capabilities. Training a cobot involves a different approach than that used with traditional robots; rather than programming them to perform specific tasks, cobots are taught by demonstrating the duties to be carried out. Consequently, a cobot will act based on its training and the desired outcomes, and can thus acquire knowledge to enable it to refine its performance and deliver even better results in the future.

The use of cobots in the workplace is not to be confused with human labour, but rather to enhance and support it. Cobots are used to improve the productivity of the human workforce, by enriching and extending the capabilities of the workers. This is done by providing greater power, more precise movements and real-time data processing, thus bolstering the value of human labour.

What’s the big deal with cobots, anyway?

If, upon reading this far, you were of the opinion that cobots have no application outside of the robotics-dominated automotive industry, you would be mistaken. It is true that warehouses, supply chains, logistics organisations, and all kinds of manufacturers are increasingly turning to cobots to improve productivity and performance, but what about the more ‘gentle’ sectors? It is clear that cobots are beginning to make their mark in a range of industries.

It is not inconceivable to envision a future in which cobots are commonplace in a variety of industries, such as retail, restaurants, theatres and retail stores. This could become a reality sooner rather than later, thanks to the advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and other associated technologies. With increasing efficiency and cost-effectiveness, cobots have the potential to revolutionise many industries and provide new opportunities for automation.

It is reasonable to suggest that the use of Collaborative Robots (cobots) is becoming increasingly commonplace in the workplace. Examples of this can be seen in Amazon’s fulfilment centres, where cobots are being used to help save time and effort when it comes to preparing items for transportation. Similarly, Ocado, an online grocery store, has also implemented cobots that can roam the warehouse and pick up items for customers to be shipped. Although there are currently no cobots working the checkouts, it seems that this is a technology that is rapidly progressing.

Indeed, that is precisely the point. Regardless of the industry, professionals should be mindful of the potential applications of collaborative robots (cobots) as it is highly likely that they may need to work alongside a robot in the future. Cobots could be the answer to the challenge of the diminishing workforce and increasing labour costs that many business owners and executives face.

It is particularly noteworthy to consider the advantages purported by cobot experts. Ron Schmelzer of Cognilytica has suggested that cobots could potentially be used to enhance productivity, effectiveness and improvement in any industry. This may be the key to encouraging human acceptance of cobots. Unlike the traditional robots that are typically perceived as replacements, cobots can be seen as intelligent assistants that can help individuals to do their jobs more efficiently.

Collaboration robots will be around for a while.

Collaborative robots (cobots) are quickly becoming an essential part of manufacturing operations for organisations of all sizes, with leading companies such as KUKA, Universal Robots and Rethink Robotics driving the trend. In fact, industry forecasts for the cobot market suggest that by 2023, collaborative robots will represent around 35% of all industrial robots sold. Whilst this does not guarantee the long-term success of cobots, it does demonstrate their growing popularity and widespread use.

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