Cobots are one of the fastest automation solutions
Published by : Industrial Automation
James McKew, Regional Director – APAC, Universal Robots.
How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted the robotics market in general, Cobots in particular?
The Covid-19 outbreak has caused a major shakeup, no doubt about it. This is a time when the robustness of our supply chain is seriously challenged. Manufacturers are one of the hardest hit as manufacturing jobs are primarily on-site, and slowed economic activity has decreased demand. Given the unknown variables of how the Covid-19 pandemic will play out and when containment will be achieved, forward thinking industrial manufacturers are bracing for a trying period and planning for a recovery that takes into consideration new distancing practices that limits the number of workers at a physical location and stringent hygiene demands. This is when manufacturers start looking at cobots as a solution. Cobots have the advantage of taking up less space than traditional industrial robots, and relatively more cost-efficient, flexible and easier to use for workers without prior experience of working with robots. Cobots are also one of the fastest automation solutions in the market to deploy and even redeploy with new tasks when the manufacturing process changes. In uncertain times, flexibility reduces risk and allows manufacturers to repurpose assembly lines to churn out different products within a short time. By enabling humans and cobots to work together, direct human contact is reduced and safe social distance standards can be adhered to, while the plant continues to function.
Are UR products truly universal in the sense of applications in any type of task or are there limitations?
Cobots from Universal Robots bring flexible automation to manufacturers from small family run companies to multinational corporations. Tasks which are highly repetitive from assembly to painting, from palletising to screw-driving, from packaging to polishing, from injection moulding to welding and many other processing tasks, UR cobots supported by an comprehensive ecosystem of compatible components and application kits, can help companies achieve greater productivity.
More than simply automation, Universal Robots changes how people work and live around the globe by empowering their ideas and dreams – whether it’s helping a non-profit improve people’s vision in the poorest countries or allowing a manufacturer to reduce the strain of repetitive tasks.
What are the segments that are best suited for application of cobots?
Universal Robots collaborative robot arms are used to boost performance and add value in countless industries every day. Resilient businesses use collaborative robots to adapt and grow, even during difficult times. In almost every industry, cobots are taking on new tasks, helping companies stay competitive, and protecting workers. These are the sectors that can highly benefit from collaborative robots: Automotive & Subcontractors; Education & Science; Electronics & Technology; Food & Beverages; Medical & Cosmetics; Metals & Machining; and Plastics & Polymers.
How has the e-Series cobots changed the market preferences, and is the CB series still available?
In 2018, a new generation of Universal Robots cobots, e-series was introduced, raising the standards for cobots. In 2019, UR launched UR16e suited for high payload tasks such as heavy material handling, heavy machine tending, packaging palletising and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs)
UR e-Series cobots exemplify all that we believe in productivity, adaptability and reliability. Equipped with intuitive programming, versatile use and an almost endless list of opportunities for add-ons, the e-Series is able to complement production regardless of industry, company size or product nature.
There are a few improvements from the CB series. This includes a higher accuracy for position repeatability, force and torque, thanks to a built-in Force/Torque sensor, a few more safety features, and a re-designed teach pendant which is more intuitive, and further simplifies the programming flow.
End-users with complex applications and diverse or uncertain future needs will benefit from the e-Series platform and our unique Universal Robots+ (UR+) ecosystem knowing that their investment will be able to grow with them as their needs change. We enable innovative customers to rapidly drive adoption of automation technology into their businesses to maximise their competitive advantage.
The CB series continues to be available for customers.
How has the UR+ ecosystem and the learning platform helped the business grow and the lessons from it?
The UR+ ecosystem is the world’s first ecosystem of third-party end-effector solutions and other add-ons from Universal Robots collaborative robot (cobot) arms. The ecosystem allows UR and partners to focus on what each does best, encouraging collaboration and creativity that benefits customers.
While other manufacturers opt to make their own end-effectors rather than involve third parties, UR has chosen an ecosystem business model for a variety of reasons:
a. It acknowledges that nobody’s an expert in everything and couldn’t do it all
b. We believe the ecosystem we have created with our partners benefits customers in multiple ways
c. The ecosystem helps UR’s partners increase sales and inspires creativity
d. This approach ensures the highest possible quality of UR cobot end-effectors and add-ons.
A great robotic arm is exceedingly difficult to engineer. So, the idea that UR could excel at this plus also produce end-effectors that live up to its standards was not an approach we wanted to pursue. End-effectors are industry- and application-specific, and the companies that make them possess highly specialised knowledge of exactly how their products are used and must function. These companies are experts in the minute details. As experts in collaboration, we thought it only natural that we should facilitate the collaboration between end-users and end-effector suppliers. At UR, we’ve found that the ecosystem we’ve created with our partners benefits customers in four ways: Utility, choice, security, and ease.
Creating healthy, dynamic competition
Because of the size and diversity of the UR+ portfolio of products certified to work well with UR cobots from day 1, any given customer is more likely to find just the right tool for their application than with other suppliers. This means more companies can benefit from robotic automation, and those that do can maximise the productivity, quality, and cost-saving benefits that cobots provide. It goes without saying that an ecosystem approach, with multiple suppliers producing the same types of end-effectors, gives customers more choice than if they only had one option available to them. For the individual customer, choice means a more exact match to specific needs. In a broader sense, it means a more-dynamic ecosystem, with partners jostling to outdo each other or find underserviced niches that keep pushing quality higher as it broadens the offering as a whole.
Securing the investment
When we speak of UR+ and security, we mean the security of the customer’s investment in automation infrastructure. A smaller automation provider might entice today, but could be gone tomorrow, leaving the end-user stranded with a futureless technology. In addition to this “staying power” security, a larger ecosystem means more engineers working to solve challenges today and tomorrow – and a greater chance that they will succeed. Ease-of-use means faster deployment and less-costly training time for operators. We achieve this through certified seamless hardware integration and end-effector control that is fully integrated in the UR control interface. A UR cobot can be deployed and put to work in next to no time, and the UR+ program makes sure that end-effectors don’t slow the process or add costly complexity.
Ultimately, the UR+ ecosystem was created to empower customers – as do the cobots themselves. UR+ taps into that entrepreneurial do-it-yourself spirit that drives companies to take the first steps toward automation. It’s more of a movement than a business model, and involvement usually means positive transformation. The UR+ ecosystem empowers manufacturers of end-effectors just as it empowers companies that take the automation plunge.
UR+ partners gain sales access to a larger worldwide installed base than they’ll find with any other collaborative robot manufacturer. They ensure maximum performance by making sure their products are used with the best cobots available. They maximise customer satisfaction by delivering the compatibility and ease of use that the UR+ certification process ensures. And they can count on business growth, as the installed base of UR cobots just keeps expanding.
Why benefits outweigh the risk
A less-tangible benefit for UR+ partners is the creative energy they’re able to tap into when they join the developer program. We freely admit that there are risks involved in opening up. But we’ve found that they are manageable, and the risks involved in pretending you can do everything yourself are far greater. To ensure the quality of the third-party end-effectors and other products available through the UR+ program, Universal Robots operates a proven certification system. The challenge is to give developers the creative freedom to invent their dream solutions, while also insisting 100 per cent on the compatibility, performance, and ease of use.
Universal Robots believes that a third-party ecosystem approach is the best way to get complete cobot solutions in the hands of customers. The proof is in the “booming” UR+ marketplace, that now counts 155 certified UR+ products and 400+ approved commercial developer companies in the UR+ program now. For us, there is no limit to the new solutions and opportunities that UR+ will open up for customers and partners going forward. As cobot automation continues to grow and move into new application areas, new end-effector and accessory developers with useful new solutions will just keep coming.
UR Academy – the learning platform
UR Academy offers easy and intuitive free e-learning courses to engaging training courses in-class and virtually by certified trainers from all over the world. A common denominator for all Academy courses is that content is hands-on, interactive, realistic and visual. There’s no ‘death by Power Point’ in our classes as students work directly with the cobot, either in real life or through our free simulator. I’d like to highlight three areas that we’re focusing on right now, all shaped by user feedback:
Microcredentials and Education Programs
Offering micro-credentials that you can add to your CV has become extremely popular and sought after. All surveys show that a vast majority of human resource managers are interested in the micro-credentials of potential hires – while most employees also respond that they want more opportunities for career growth. We have started offering the world’s first cobot curriculum for schools and colleges available through our Academy Learning Management System. Schools can now purchase our cobots with relevant application hardware (conveyors, grippers, etc.), 32 lessons of curriculum, an online platform to manage the content, - and a certification of teachers to enable their students to earn an industry-recognised certificate they can use to stand out in the crowd and officially show their mastery of a particular cobot skill set.
Students at the vocational school Städtische Berufsschule für Metall – Design – Mechatronik in Munich, Germany, now train on the UR cobots in preparation for careers, automating processes in the automobile industry.
It’s a turnkey program that provides a clearly defined pathway for students to master cobot programming and deployment as part of an Industry 4.0 career in robotics and advanced manufacturing. Students completing this program will be at the same level as industry professionals completing the Core Training modules at our Authorised Training Centres. We are currently offering curricula to schools in Germany, Spain and the United States and expect to have three more markets by the second quarter of 2021.
As the Covid pandemic hit last year and we started cancelling classes at our Authorised Training Centres, the need for a virtual alternative has become crucial to our efforts in connecting with students. Tools such as our UR simulator and remote cobot control options will be important in delivering an experience as were the students in an actual classroom. We’re developing a 3D environment for the simulator that will provide the same kind of programming experience as pilots entering a flight simulator. This year alone, we’re hoping to virtually train thousands of students.
Universal Robots’ Authorised Training Centres build on the online training modules, offering more advanced training sessions for industry professionals. The Training Centres are offered both at UR’s own facilities around the world and through partners – as seen here at Advanced Control Solutions in the US.
Customised learning experiences
We’re currently considering moving away from standardised modules. Instead of having students go through certain levels, we will introduce customised application-focused modules earlier on and guide them down a path they choose. Some students might not need to learn about vision but need more insights on CNC interfacing, we’ll provide a way for them to embark on that journey from the onset, both in online modules for self-study and smaller, more directed classes either in-class or virtual.
What we want to create is a degree of stickiness; we offer the free online training that convinces potential customers that deploying and programming a UR cobot is something they can do – once they have the cobot, we keep providing continuous upskilling opportunities by offering the training content and the professional development they need for their specific scenario.
We’ve come a long way since we launched the first Academy modules back in 2016. Today, we have more than 100,000 users from 130+ countries completing online and in-classroom robotics training courses available in 16 languages. We have 65 Authorised Training Centres in 24 countries with more planned in 2021. The Academy was launched as we wanted to create in-house UR experts and upskill the workforce in mastering cobots. So far, it looks like we’re succeeding with that mission as we clearly see users taking UR Academy training shorten their cobot implementation time significantly – and they start building their cobot fleet with additional cobots much faster. As we started building the Academy training, we also reached out to schools – from elementary to college level and vocational training centres – offering them hands-on experience programming and operating a real industrial robot.
Though the Indian use cases are well documented, what are the barriers the company faces here, especially in the MSME segment?
India ranks 11th worldwide in terms of annual installation of industrial robots, shows International Federation of Robotics (IFR) data. According to IFR, the average deployment of robots in automotive in India is only 99 robots per 10,000 employees. In the manufacturing sector, its 4 robots per 10,000 employees, which is 25 times behind the global average. There is a pretty good reason for that. In India, the cost of labour is low and available easily, at least before the Covid-19 crisis it was. On the other hand, cobot (collaborative robots) adoption is relatively new. India has been slow in this sphere, but adopting a human-robot approach can be particularly helpful for the manufacturing sector.
As Regional Director of Universal Robots A/S's (a Teradyne Company) Asia Pacific Operations, James McKew is leading the success of customer and sales strategy for this world leader in collaborative robotics and automation, building a sales, marketing, applications and customer service management infrastructure with a strong pipeline of new and repeat business, guiding strategic planning, execution, goal development and program initiatives for the Asia Pacific Region.