Collaborative robots in UK manufacturing

New generations of collaborative robots (cobots) are changing the face of manufacturing in the UK. From a low starting point, in 2016 the UK increased robot installations for the first time in four years. Yet, compared to other major manufacturing countries, the UK is in the second Division.

According to a recent UK White Paper, over the next five to ten years, innovation in Robotics and Automation Systems (RAS) will underpin technological change. They will bring new opportunities for UK manufacturing to be more productive across all sectors.

Countries like China, Japan Korea, USA and Germany lead the tables for overall robot use. Automotive and heavy manufacturing are the main users of robotics. To ensure a meaningful comparison for general manufacturing, the 2017 IFR survey also compares density of multi-purpose robots per 10,000 employees.

Based on robot density, the most automated countries are Korea, Singapore, Japan and Germany. However, outside of automotive applications, robot density is general manufacturing is low generally.

Many factors influence the potential for smaller lighter robots. They include price competitiveness, improving quality of output, and addressing a shortage of workers. Allied to these are new generations of lighter cobots for working closely with people. Advances in artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, vision systems, and Industry 4.0/IIoT will ease integration.

Whilst robots support mass production, cobots may well provide the answer to mass customisation. These multi-function collaborative robots are suitable for SMEs, including food and beverage manufacturing. AI, machine vision and lightweight construction will reduce cost and simplify integration. Smart tools will give them an increasingly dextrous capability. Common applications include bolting, gluing, welding, picking, and assembly.

UK Government initiative

In November 2017, the UK Government unveiled its strategy to boost productivity and earnings. Their Industrial Strategy sets out a long-term plan to boost the productivity and earning power of people throughout the UK.

The government has already committed £1 billion to the first wave of Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund projects. This includes investing £246 million in next generation battery technology and £86 million in robotics hubs across the UK.

What do we mean by a robot

British Automation and Robot Association (BARA) defines a robot as a re-programmable device designed to both manipulate and transport parts, tools or specialised manufacturing implements through variable programmed motions for the performance of specific manufacturing tasks. This means it is not limited to an articulated arm, and as such includes a wide range of smart machines and devices and collaborative robots.

Collaborative robots (Cobots)

In traditional applications, robots and their operators remain segregated. The robots operate behind shielded safety systems and shut down when their operators need to approach them. Although that will always be the case in some installations, cobots are different. Cobots work alongside their human counterparts, complementing rather than replacing them. They will also work together as systems.

Cobots sense the presence of humans and objects in their workspace. Torque in the robot joints is constantly monitored. If it hits anything or torque exceeds the pre-set level, the robot stops immediately. An active human command is the only way to restart a machine that has stopped in this way.

Many use wireless sensors to detect potential collisions. This enables them to slow down rather than stop. When the area is clear, they automatically resume normal operations. The application of artificial intelligence provides the robot with perception of its environment.

AI

Why now is the right time to be investigating collaborative robots for boosting productivity. This is due to advances in mechatronics and computing enabling new generations of multi-purpose robots. Converging AI with robotics provides the system with autonomy through learning. Predicting outcomes improves the ability of the system to function collaboratively.

Self-awareness in the robot supports interactions with others in its environment. This is also known as social robotics and includes human-robot interactions (HCI) and cognitive robotics.

Teaching

Programming of a cobot is possible using text and menu-based programs. However, teach pendants remain the most popular method of teaching robot’s positional data. This uses a controller to manually drive the robot to the required coordinate, which is then memorised by the arm. Joining each programed action completes the sequence of operations the robot needs to perform.

Vision Systems

Improvements in 2D and 3D imaging have improved two important functions in the use of cobots. Firstly, as part of their AI programme for sensing environmental awareness. Secondly, for vison in relation to their task through visual pattern recognition.

Actuators

Human operators use their hand coordinated by touch or vision. When using robots, it is generally more cost-effective to redesign products for automated assembly. This is due to a wide range of actuators is available off the shelf or made to order. Most popular are pneumatic, electric, hydraulic or mechanical, such as magnetic or vacuum.

Many have features making them ideal for highly specialised applications. They can offer repeatable control force and speed, along with 100% feedback to control final torque. High speed inspection and testing of delicate or oddly-shaped materials and parts is also accommodated.

Integration

Integrating robots is achievable in-house or using external dedicated robotic integration specialists. The choice depends on complexity and available resources. Robot integrators have the advantage of experience across a wide range of industries, that can be essential for designing tools or feeder systems.

Cost

The cost of the robot depends on the payload capacity and also reach. For example, a basic 2kg, 500mm six axis robot costs about £14,000, which is reasonable compared to the cost of the human equivalent. The cost of integration and suitable actuators needs to be added. Finally, cobots are reliable, inexpensive to run, and move from job-to-job as needed.