Collaborative robots, commonly known as cobots, have gained significant momentum over the past decade. Cobot refers to robots that work shoulder to shoulder with human operators without a physical fence or cage. Thanks to this feature, operators can enter the coworking space without shutting down the entire production line, minimizing the downtime costs.
Whilst historically, cobots have not been as popular as industrial robots, in recent years, several drivers have been proposed to accelerate the adoption of cobots, including industry 5.0, smart factory proposals by large automotive manufacturers, and increasing demand for production reshoring.
As one of the pioneers of adopting automation in production, automotive manufacturing by far is the largest market for robots; however, one of the pain points of large automakers is that if one industrial robot malfunctions, the entire production line needs to be closed to ensure the safety of human operators during the inspection. This process could lead to a significant downtime cost.
However, cobots can be ideal solutions as human operators can efficiently and safely work next to them without affecting other robots. Audi has announced its ‘smart factory 2025’, where one of the key points is to enhance the human-robot interaction (HRI), and many other global car makers such as Volkswagen and Nissan also have proposed similar plans. These plans are believed to drive a rapid increase in cobot sales in the automotive manufacturing industry.
Industry 4.0, as a hot topic, has been investigated for many years. However, industry 4.0 focuses on digitalization, which has proven to cause a number of social-economic issues such as concerns over replacing human operators and greenhouse gas emissions. Recently, the European Union (EU) proposed its Horizon 2020 and Industry 5.0 plan, where HRI and reducing carbon dioxide emissions are heavily discussed.
Since many robot manufacturers and end-users are headquartered in Europe, IDTechEx believes this proposal will increase the demand for collaborative robots. In addition, many other countries have also introduced their plans, such as Made in China 2025, Strategy for Denmark’s Digital Growth, and A Roadmap: From Internet to Robotics, to promote the adoption of cobots.
Industry 5.0 focuses on three main areas: human-centric manufacturing, sustainability, and resilience of businesses. As the EU’s recent publication mentioned, Industry 5.0 aims to bring human operators back to production and improve manufacturing sustainability. It is widely believed that Industry 5.0 needs an increasing deployment of collaborative robots, but how exactly are they related, and what benefits would cobots bring to Industry 5.0?
Human-centric manufacturing puts a high requirement for safety in production because machines work closely with human operators. Torque sensors can be used for collision detection and force control. Human operators set the values of torque sensors in advance. When a collision occurs, the values detected by sensors will exceed the pre-set range, triggering the emergency stop function. Thanks to robustness and cheapness, torque sensors are collaborative robots’ most widely used sensory systems.
However, torque sensors can only detect the torque change once a collision has happened, meaning they cannot make predictions beforehand. Proximity sensors could be an ideal solution to this. The capacitance of the air gap between sensors and humans will change when the human operators are in proximity to the cobotic arm. However, proximity sensors are relatively expensive, and in order to enable the cobot to detect human operators from every direction, many proximity sensors are needed, which ultimately leads to a high cost and reduced affordability.
Sustainability refers to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating the potential negative social impacts of Industry 4.0. For example, compared with industrial robots, collaborative robots operate at a lower speed and have a smaller footprint, leading to lower carbon dioxide emissions. Meanwhile, since cobots work closely with human operators, there will be fewer social-economic concerns over machines replacing humans.
Finally, in terms of resilience, due to the lingering impacts of COVID, such as supply chain disruption and inflation, large global corporates have started to diversify their suppliers. These impacts bring significant opportunities and challenges to local small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to increase their factory automation and meet the manufacturing capacity requirements of those large corporates. A few SMEs have started to install cobots in their production lines to increase their manufacturing capacity.
In summary, compared with Industry 4.0, there is no significant technology evolution in automation or manufacturing when transitioning to Industry 5.0. IDTechEx believes that Industry 5.0 would bring tremendous opportunities to collaborative robots. As the pioneer of Industry 5.0, Europe has seen a rapid increase in collaborative robot adoption, and IDTechEx believes that other major regional economies will also promote the adoption of cobots.