The Cobots Are Coming!

by | Aug 7, 2020


Welcome to article #6 in my “Climbing the Reopen Mountain” series on using OpEx methods to help you face pandemic-driven changes. For more articles on this topic, see my blog list.

cobot in action

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Yes, I said c-o-b-o-t-s, which are “collaborative robots” that typically work alongside people.

How are they different from traditional robots? Think human, not super human. Cobots do work that a human can do without assistance. They can lift a box; not a pallet of boxes. They can make a single weld; not 20 welds at once.

Cobots are designed for small applications in small spaces. They don’t require the safety cages and guarding that traditional robots do. They can fit on a table top and are much easier to deploy and redeploy than robots.


The Fuel for Global Cobot Combustion

So, why are cobots catching on like wildfire? Let’s look at the trends:

FIRST, the small and mid-sized manufacturers (and industries like assembly, agriculture/food production and logistics-delivery) that are vital in large supply chains will be fighting for survival. There are about 250,000 manufacturing firms in the U.S. alone and 90% of them have less than 100 employees. Pandemic-driven worker shortages, six-foot spacing requirements for workers, and the very real possibility of shutting down if they become a Covid-19 hot spot, all make investment in relatively inexpensive cobots a LOT more attractive.

SECOND, peoples’ interest in work where the four Ds are present has been declining for decades, namely, jobs that are dull, dirty, difficult or dangerous. The four Ds are more likely to be present in small and mid-sized companies that don’t have the means to build state-of-the-art facilities. It’s forecast that more than two million manufacturing jobs alone will go unfilled in the coming decade due to either lack of skills or interest.

THIRD, the cost of deploying cobots has dropped significantly and is now only 20% of a traditional robot. The ROI on a typical cobot deployment is one year or less. Cobot programming has become so simple that a reasonably intelligent employee can learn the basics in about 30 minutes. You don’t need an EE or CS degree anymore.

All that said, cobots aren’t cheap and small businesses haven’t jumped on them, but the pandemic is about to change that dramatically.

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The Match that is Lighting the Coming Cobot Wildfire

Covid-19 is giving businesses a vivid taste of the future, where they don’t have enough employees to run their processes. If you’re a small business with less than 100 people, this pandemic is likely pushing you and your customers to the limit. You may even be responsible for shutting down the production lines of key customers deemed essential such as food, transportation, medical devices, healthcare and pharmaceuticals.

Some products and services are in much HIGHER demand due to Covid-19, but manufacturers can’t produce or deliver enough due to the sheer lack of people. This is not only a missed business opportunity, but could actually prolong the pandemic if, for example, they produce PPE or deliver cleaning/sanitizing services.

We are experiencing first hand just how fragile our work processes and supply chains are in the face of a global pandemic. Chances are we will experience another one and companies will work hard to ensure today’s production nightmares NEVER happen again. Cobots will surely be one response.


Look Before You Leap

Don’t stop reading and start calling cobot suppliers yet! Yes, cobots are impressive and financially attractive, but that great ROI I mentioned is based on sound upfront study and analysis. Throwing a cobot at a process could be a huge waste of money and time.

Here are a few things to consider:

  1. Cobots are faster than humans at their tasks and don’t take breaks or lunches. They will produce more and throw your production line out of balance. Remember the process steps before and after the cobot are still being done by humans. You could wind up with piles of inventory after the cobot process or having the cobot sitting idle waiting for materials to arrive. An accurate model or simulation of your production process is necessary to determine where to place cobots and how many you need as well as how to change your staffing in other areas.
  2. Don’t automate waste! In other words…don’t buy a cobot to rework bad product. Sure it’s being done by a human today and you need them to do more value-added work, but eliminate the root cause of the rework! Then, you remove the costs, time and physical space the rework step required all together PLUS save the money you would’ve spent on a cobot. A huge double win!
  3. Communicate with your employees! Remember, your people will work alongside cobots and they will likely be programming them. Your deployment will benefit tremendously when you get them deeply involved upfront. They will think of things you haven’t and their experiences and ideas will help your cobot projects succeed.

If you are responsible for any aspect of operations, chances are excellent that you’ll be deploying cobots – or, if you’re an early adopter – adding more. Combine cobots with good OpEx fundamentals and you’ll get the most out of your investment.

Wondering whether cobots are right for you? Call or email me and let’s talk about what a pre-cobot assessment can do for your operations.

Todd Hudson, Head Maverick