Collaborative robots, or cobots, have been a transformative force in the manufacturing industry over the past decade. Initially designed to handle simple, repetitive tasks, they have evolved to take on more complex roles thanks to advancements in artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), and sensor technology.
Cobots’ ability to work alongside human workers has made them an attractive option for manufacturers looking to improve efficiency and productivity.
As cobots become an integral part of the manufacturing landscape, safety is a growing concern. Ensuring a safe working environment is not just a matter of regulatory compliance. It’s a business imperative that impacts worker morale, productivity, and ultimately, the bottom line.
The global trend and state of cobots in APAC
Cobots were initially introduced in the early 2000s as a safer and more flexible alternative to traditional industrial robots. Over the years, they have evolved to include advanced features like real-time monitoring, adaptive learning, and complex task handling. These advancements have been driven by rapid developments in AI and ML technologies.
According to industry reports, the global cobot market is expected to reach US$6.8 billion by 2029, growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 34.3% from 2023 to 2029. This explosive growth is indicative of the increasing acceptance and implementation of cobots across various industries.
The Asia-Pacific (APAC) region has shown a keen interest in adopting cobots, particularly in countries like Japan, South Korea, India, and China. These nations are investing heavily in automation technologies to offset rising labour costs and to stay competitive in the global market. The cobot market in APAC is expected to outpace the global average in terms of growth.
While Europe and North America have been early adopters of cobot technology, the APAC region is quickly catching up. Driven by its manufacturing-centric economies, technological innovation, and increasing labour costs, APAC is poised to become a significant player in the cobot market.
Safety standards, challenges, and solutions in APAC
The ISO/TS 15066 standard sets the safety requirements for collaborative industrial robot systems and the work environment. It provides comprehensive guidelines on risk assessments, safety controls, and emergency procedures. Adhering to this standard is crucial for any organisation looking to integrate cobots into their operations.
Additionally, countries like Japan and South Korea have developed their own sets of safety guidelines and standards, which are often more stringent. These guidelines cover everything from the design and installation to the operation and maintenance of cobots.
One of the significant technological challenges is ensuring real-time monitoring and control, given the dynamic nature of human-robot interaction. This requires sophisticated sensor technology and advanced algorithms to detect and prevent potential hazards.
The initial setup cost of cobots, coupled with the ongoing expenses for training human workers and ensuring compliance with multiple safety standards, can be a significant financial burden for businesses. This is especially true for small and medium-sized enterprises.
Companies can overcome these challenges through regular safety audits, comprehensive employee training, and investing in cobots equipped with advanced safety features. Additionally, leveraging government grants and subsidies can help offset some of the financial burdens.
Design and operational safety features of cobots
Modern cobots come equipped with a range of safety features like collision detection, force limiting, and emergency stop functions. These features are designed to minimise the risks associated with human-robot interaction.
It’s essential to have standard operating procedures (SOPs) that outline the do’s and don’ts of working alongside cobots. These SOPs should be easily accessible and regularly updated to reflect any changes in safety guidelines or operational practices.
Investing in regular training sessions and awareness programs can significantly enhance the safety culture within an organisation. These programs should cover the basics of cobot operation, emergency procedures, and best practices for safe human-robot collaboration.
IPTec, a manufacturer specialising in ignition transformers, faced challenges related to repetitive tasks that led to frequent mistakes and worker fatigue. The company aimed to improve the working environment while increasing productivity and reducing manufacturing costs.
IPTec deployed two cobots to handle tasks such as picking up and moving ignition transformers for soldering, inspection, and marking. The introduction of these cobots led to a significant increase in daily production by 123% and a reduction in manufacturing costs by 8%. Defect rates dropped to nearly 0%. Workers were freed from repetitive tasks, reducing fatigue and allowing them to focus on more complex responsibilities.
Infinitus, a manufacturer of Chinese herbal supplements, operated a plant in Guangdong that was at a competitive disadvantage due to outdated manufacturing equipment and reliance on human labour for material transport.
The company decided to automate its operations and added three autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) during a significant plant overhaul in 2017-2018. These robots work in the packaging production line and can handle multiple types of material.
The AMRs, managed by fleet management software, have significantly improved the plant’s productivity. They can navigate multiple paths and intersections, avoiding obstacles like personnel and equipment. The software also monitors daily parameters such as power levels and directs the robots to recharge when necessary.
Future outlook and recommendations
As sensor technology and ML algorithms continue to advance, we can expect cobots to become even safer in the future. Features like predictive analytics for hazard detection and real-time adaptability are likely to become standard in the coming years.
For businesses in the APAC region considering cobot adoption, it’s crucial to conduct thorough risk assessments and choose cobots with the latest safety features. Additionally, investing in employee training and staying updated on the latest safety standards can go a long way in ensuring a safe and productive work environment.
As the APAC region continues to embrace cobots, prioritising safety will be essential. A focus on safety will not only fulfil regulatory requirements but also serve as a business necessity for sustainable and responsible growth.