Making sense of co-bots

There's been plenty of buzz lately about robots taking over human jobs. But collaborative robots that work with people is a much more likely scenario

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We’ve all heard the term “robot” since the days of Rosie from the Jetsons. Recently, the buzz is about virtual robots and AI. However, the term “co-bots” has also been around for a while, and because of the interesting conversations lately about robots taking over human jobs, it seems to be a worthwhile topic to bring up here.

What’s a co-bot?

Co-bots, also known as collaborative robots, work with people. In this video example, you’ll see a co-bot at one of Amazon’s warehouses. The co-bot fetches an entire shelf of goods (that weigh more than what a person could lift) and brings them to a human packer. The person selects the items, manually boxes them, tapes them up, and puts them on the conveyor belt.

One of the characteristics of co-bots is that they have sensors, giving them the ability to detect a force and quickly react to it, in the case of bumping or pinching. And newer co-bots also have visual sensors that allow it to keep a safe distance from a specified object. With all this safety and design around working along-side a person, are these robots really meant to actually replace people?

Are robots replacing people?

With more recent discussions around robots and AI, you might have seen several articles, or at least headlines, about robots replacing people in their jobs. Generally, I don’t believe this to be the case in the near term. And with co-bots, the process is designed around both people and the robots working together. Based on an Amazon employee’s comments, they appreciate the robot doing the more labor-intensive work, enabling the human worker to do more value added tasks. This would also be the case in virtual situations, such as robotic process automation (RPA) and in industrial scenarios.

Working together helps the human worker accomplish their task more efficiently.

Co-bot use cases

In industrial settings, there are a number of ways that co-bots are being used. These include:

  • Packing
  • Loading and unloading components for “machine tending”
  • Assembling (glue, screws, welding, etc.)
  • Stacking, moving pallets
  • Cleaning rooms

Benefits of co-bots

Co-bots can help improve safety in an industrial setting. The co-bot can perform the more dangerous operations, shielding the human workers. Separate from the safety aspect, co-bots also protect people from long-term injuries by taking over repetitive tasks. Another form of protecting people is for the co-bot to handle heavy loads instead. In situations, such as large warehouses, a “runner” co-bot could swiftly fetch materials or products from far away and bring them to the person in less than half the time (probably even quicker).

The future of co-bots

Already, there are many benefits and uses for co-bots. With more artificial intelligence, visual enhancements, and motion enhancements, co-bots will become more advanced in the very near term.

If you are interested in tracking what’s happening with co-bots, follow the hashtag #cobots. IEEE also has some great coverage on robots and related news.

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