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You may think of robots primarily as assembly line machines doing the same thing around the clock. And if you walk into a production plant, odds are those same robots will be located behind a secure fence out of harm's way.
But the world of robotics is in the midst of dramatic change. Many robots today are working alongside humans, stepping in to help as needed.
Traditional industrial robots still have a place when things have to be done repeatedly, quickly and without mistakes, but advanced robotics technology is enabling collaborative robots to assist in other areas of the plant, like the warehouse and manufacturing cell.
Collaborative robots are up to more tasks because they can think for themselves. They're a combination of artificial intelligence, sophisticated vision systems and mechanical engineering, which means they can teach themselves about their surroundings and work safely alongside humans. No fences required.
There are self-driving warehouse vehicles that spend their days delivering inventory and parts that have the smarts to change direction if their path is blocked. There are standalone machines that can provide a “third arm” to a worker and know to stop working should anyone - or anything - get too close. Robots can handle an array of jobs, from guidance tools for surgeries to mega-sized machines that retrieve and install car tires on an assembly line.
Collaborative robots represent one of the fastest growing robotic categories, with shipments expected to grow from $100 million to $1 billion by 2025 – a tenfold increase, according to the International Federation of Robotics.
The interest in collaborative robots makes sense in today's world. They address the challenges of aging workforces and more demand for customization - not to mention escalating labour and production costs.
Najah Ayadi, President of Bluewrist Inc., a provider of industrial automation solutions and products based in Richmond Hill, Ontario, believes it's a technology that makes good business sense. "This new generation of safe robots can deliver a return on investment within one year on average."
But it's not just dollars and cents. Collaborative robots, along with robotics and autonomous systems in general, can help manufacturers improve quality, accuracy and most importantly, worker safety. And because they can work more closely with humans, they take up less floor space.
Ayadi adds that the innovation he is seeing involves a lot of players, from engineers and systems integrators to colleges and universities, and government and standards bodies. Bluewrist's own product development relies on its relationships with local colleges and universities, co-op programs and other manufacturers within the region.
Perhaps one of the main attractions is the fact that collaborative robots can quickly make smaller businesses more competitive. They are both affordable and more user-friendly than they used to be, explains Chris Claringbold, CEO of KUKA Robotics Canada Ltd, a robotics systems manufacturer based in Mississauga, Ontario.
Today's systems are far more intuitive and easier to program, as well as more accessible to business owners. Today you don't need an engineering degree to program a robot or system. So anyone can benefit.
Watch out FANUC's new CR-35iA working safely side by side with human operators:
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All figures are in Canadian dollars unless otherwise noted. Information is accurate at the time of publication.