Not Robots, Cobots
If I were to ask you what you think about robots, you might think of several alternatives. Maybe you think about C3PO from Star Wars, Bender from Futurama, or one of the Transformers. Perhaps the first thing that comes to mind is manufacturing robots that can’t speak or reason but that work tirelessly and automatically. You might even go beyond that and think of modern developments like robotic dogs or robotic tutors.
What you might not think right away, though, is in robots working with you. Alongside you, that is, as if they were company employees just like yourself. Sounds strange? Well, get used to it, as that may become the norm in the near future with the rise of the so-called cobots.
What are cobots?
Strictly speaking, robots have always been thought of as physical machines that can be intelligent or not, and perform automated tasks that are dirty, dangerous, expensive or dull. These are the robots you can see across industries as varied as manufacturing, healthcare, energy generation, warehousing, and more. By this definition, robots are designed to take care of tasks that could have negative outcomes for humans.
Thus, industrial robots as we know them today are mostly designed as a replacement for humans. This means that robots are created to work in human-free zones or in very restricted areas where almost no human can interact with them. The idea is that robots are limited in some way to prevent potential harm they could inflict on humans in their surroundings.
However, this isn’t the case with cobots. The name is short for collaborative robots and, as it implies, they are machines developed to work in conjunction and close proximity to humans. Cobots share the same workspace, perform their tasks close to them, and, naturally, collaborate with human employees. This shift in focus means that cobots are designed and built in an entirely different way than robots.
This can be seen from their development itself. Cobot training is different than that used for traditional robots. Instead of being loaded with a series of instructions with the aid of software developers, cobots are trained by being shown the tasks they are expected to perform. Thus, a cobot acts by “remembering” the training and the goals it’s supposed to accomplish, repeating the process over and over again. Every time it does so, a cobot learns new ways to optimize the process and get better results.
In light of that, cobots can’t be seen as human replacements. In fact, they are introduced in working environments to increase the efficiency of the human workforce, enhancing and augmenting the employees’ capabilities. Cobots do so by providing increased strength, precise movements, and data processing in real-time, all of which are combined with human work to add more value to the production process.
Why should you care about cobots
Everything you’ve read so far might have you wondering that cobots could only find room to work in heavy industries, like the automotive industry, which are already filled with robotics solutions. However, you’d be wrong. There are plenty of softer industries that could start using cobots—or can’t you imagine warehouses, supply chains, logistics companies, and manufacturers of all sorts using cobots to bring further value?
What’s more, cobots could grow more sophisticated and advanced to the point that we might end up finding them in other kinds of businesses, especially retail. It’s not entirely impossible to think about a cobot server in a restaurant, a cobot usher in a theater, or even a cobot sales rep in a clothing store. The rise of technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning could make all of this possible, even sooner rather than later.
There are plenty of examples to believe this could happen. Take what Amazon is doing in its fulfillment centers, where cobots are assisting employees in preparing products for shipment and, in doing so, are saving a lot of time. Or what about Ocado, an online supermarket, in which cobots move around the warehouse picking up products to send to customers? Of course, there isn’t precisely a cobot behind the counter but we’re getting there.
And that’s precisely the point. You should care about cobot development because there are a lot of chances you might end up working alongside one of them in the future, regardless of the industry you are working on. As labor pools are shrinking and labor costs increase, cobots can be the answer that business owners and execs were looking for.
That’s especially true if you consider what cobot experts say they can bring to the table. As Cognilytica’s Ron Schmelzer puts it, cobots can bring the 3 E’s to any industry: efficiency, effectiveness, and enhancement. That could also be the key to boost cobot’s acceptance from their fellow humans. That’s because employees could see cobots as intelligent assistants that will help them do their jobs better, a huge improvement over the unintelligent robots that are often seen as replacements.
Cobots are here to stay
With companies like KUKA, Universal Robots, and Rethink Robotics leading the development, cobots are set to become essential allies for industrial settings for companies of all sizes. In fact, there’s an expected growth for the cobot market that projects that nearly 35% of all industrial robots sold by 2022 will be cobots. That figure doesn’t show total dominance but it surely shows that cobots are here to stay.