The collaborative robots vendor that introduced Baxter to the world in 2012 and Sawyer in 2015 evaluates cobots' opportunities in packaging today.
The second in Packaging Digest’s series of interviews with collaborative robots vendors in this ultra-high-growth market—one report forecasts cobots growth at an amazing 57% CAGR between 2017 and 2023—is Mike Fair, product manager at Rethink Robotics.
What types of cobot applications are you seeing?
Fair: Collaborative robots (cobots) can be implemented in a variety of industries including packaging, plastics, electronics, metal fabrication, automotive and general manufacturing. They are useful in a diverse range of manufacturing functions and play an important role in automating tasks that previously could only be performed by humans.
The best workflows for cobots include repetitive tasks that tend to strain human workers, or dangerous tasks that involve interacting with other machinery. By automating these tedious, time-consuming tasks, factory workers are free to perform more valuable tasks.
What’s the most notable change in cobots since about 2015?
Fair: The whole category of automation is continuing to grow rapidly. The biggest evolution we’ve seen in cobots across the board is integration with other technologies. For example, Rethink Robotics recently announced the ClickSmart technology (see image above), a solution for end-of-arm tooling that incorporates smart sensing and rapid swapping capabilities. Designed to simplify robot deployment, ClickSmart offers a way for users to swap end effectors in seconds, whether they are Rethink’s ClickSmart family of grippers or grippers from a variety of end-effector vendors.
Cobots are also moving into the data gathering sphere, empowering manufacturers to make better business decisions. At Rethink Robotics, we recently released the Intera Insights feature with the Intera 5 software platform, providing critical data insights to manufacturers in real time. Intera Insights displays key performance indicators (KPIs) via a customizable dashboard on the robot’s display, making it accessible directly on the factory floor. This data drives more informed production decisions, while saving time and money by eliminating the need to invest in or create another data collection system.
With Intera 5, manufacturers can also optimize cycle time with additional enhancements to Sawyer’s vision capabilities.
What can cobots do now or do better they couldn’t before?
Fair: I think it’s more of a question of what manufacturers do better than they did in previous years—namely, identifying and deploying cobots on the right task. Cobots are particularly well-suited for specific tasks, like packaging, and don’t do as well on tasks that require human cognition and dexterity. Manufacturers today have a better understanding of cobot technology, and are deploying cobots in the right tasks to see higher productivity and efficiency as a result.
How has the justification for using cobots changed?
Fair: Industry acceptance of cobots has grown significantly over the past few years as more manufacturers have deployed cobots and seen direct impact on ROI [return on investment] and other metrics. Experts project the market for cobots will reach more than $4 billion by 2023, a figure that shows the confidence manufacturers have in this technology.
One major reason for the cobot adoption trend is the labor shortage that is impacting every industry and geography: Fundstrat Global Advisors says that through 2027, there will be a global shortage of 8.2 million manufacturing workers. With that size void facing them, manufacturers have a strong imperative to find alternative means of staffing their factories, and cobots are an obvious choice.
How much of a factor are those labor shortages in the growth you’re seeing?
Fair: I can’t overstate this enough: Labor is and will continue to be a major challenge for manufacturers into the foreseeable future. The stats say it all: Ten thousand baby boomers reach retirement age every single day, and 76 million are set to retire in the coming years. Many of those boomers are working in factories, and the next generations aren’t interested in working mundane manufacturing jobs.
This trend makes it critical that manufacturers have an alternative labor source. Cobots are a great solution to this challenge, filling jobs on the factory floor that are undesirable, involving monotonous tasks, while freeing workers to perform more valuable jobs.
What’s an example of a state-of-the-art cobot installation?
Fair: Cox Container, a plastics blow molding manufacturer, recently deployed Rethink’s Sawyer robot in its packing function to address challenges associated with labor shortages and offer high-quality jobs to its workers. Sawyer picks up bottles from a conveyer belt and places them into a custom bin designed by Cox Container. Once the bin is half full, Sawyer is programmed to go to another picking area, select a corrugate divider, place it in the bin and begin filling the container with a second layer of bottles. Once complete, the operator gives Sawyer a new bin to start packing, and the operator finishes the final packing of the product. With Sawyer, the company has reduced labor needs in one packing work cell by 50% and reassigned multiple staff members to more valuable and meaningful work.
When is a cobot a better choice than a traditional robot?
Fair: It’s really not a “one or the other” choice; cobots and traditional industrial robots accomplish two very different things. Cobots are a cost-effective solution for manufacturers looking to boost productivity and improve quality of their operation, and are meant to be deployed on repetitive, mundane tasks that integrate with other machines or are completed in close proximity to humans.
Cobots offer the benefit of adaptability, and can be used on multiple work cells or handle a variety of parts, as production needs change, without requiring any extensive programing or engineering.
They also complement the work produced by traditional industrial robots, which are better suited for high-volume, low-mix manufacturing models and aren’t suitable for working around humans.
What’s the question you hear most from potential users and how do you answer it?
Fair: One of the most common questions we receive is, “What applications can I deploy Sawyer on most successfully?” This is an important question since successful integration begins with selecting the right task. When we hear this question, we reassure the potential customer that we work directly with the customer from day one to help identify the right application and ensure the cobot is used in the task that will provide the most ROI for the business.
What’s the biggest takeaway you’d like to leave for readers?
Fair: Cobots are safe enough to work alongside people, easy to deploy and able to perform dull or dirty tasks that must be completed, but aren’t very satisfying. Offering a solution to the labor problem fueled by an aging workforce and a new generation that doesn’t want to work in manufacturing, cobots provide an effective and dependable way to automate more tasks and increase productivity without sacrificing quality.
Mike Fair is a product manager at Rethink Robotics, where he leverages his in-depth customer experience and customer advocacy to help guide the company's product strategy. Having worked at multiple Boston-area robot companies—and with more than 20 years’ experience in mechanical engineering, product support and applications—Fair has traveled worldwide to advance the company’s presence in new and emerging markets. He has a BS in Mechanical Engineering Technology and a Global MBA with a focus on International Marketing.
See also Cobots in packaging 2018: A debriefing with Universal Robots, published April 2018.
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