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More manufacturers are using a new generation of agile, lightweight and dexterous collaborative robots

At Panek Precision in Northbrook, Ill, the robot age is in full swing—and it’s collaborative.

Two years ago, the 70 year-old family-run metal-cutting company introduced state-of-the art robots that were much more flexible than the equipment it had used before. Unlike their hulking predecessor, these lighter, more agile babies could be stationed right alongside employees, actually working with them. In the old days, for example, an employee might have, say, stamped lettering on a piece of metal in one machine and then carried it to the next one, loading it, waiting for the cutting process to finish and then unloading it—a tedious process. Now, that same individual simply could put lettering on the material, then hand it to a robot, which would take it to the next machine for the next step.

They’re too compelling not to be used....These robots are going to keep proliferating. - Dan Kara

 

“These robots are smarter, cheaper and easier for us to work with,” says Vice President Brian Panek. The company now has up to 28 of them on the factory floor at any one time.

Co-bot: A new breed of robot

Panek is making the most of a new generation of industrial robots appearing more frequently in factories. Called collaborative robots, or co-bots, they’re a small part of the overall business now. But the co-bot market is expected to grow from $95 million in 2015 to $1 billion by 2020, according to ABI Research, a market research firm based in Oyster Bay, NY. “We see this market exploding right now,” says Henrik Christensen, chair of Robotics at Georgia Institute of Technology and executive director of the Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Machines.

You can see why. Their older counterparts, used mostly in auto manufacturing, are huge, unwieldy things, used for processes like welding that don’t require dexterity or manipulating small parts. They also are highly inflexible—able to do just one task repeatedly--generally bolted down and kept in cages, the better to ensure they don’t come in contact with any humans and cause bodily harm.

Smaller and lighter, collaborative robots, or co-bots, on the other hand, can work alongside people or in close proximity and, sometimes, directly with them—say, turning a screw while a human holds the object with both hands. In some cases, they can divide up a process, with robots doing some of the jobs, while people do the others. Auto maker BMW, for example, uses mixed robot-human teams for car-door assembly, with people doing tasks like the wiring and robots taking care of such duties as inserting the windows, according to Christensen.

But co-bots also are moving well past the automotive industry. That’s partly because they’re able to perform a much wider range of tasks than older robots, including anything from assembling tiny parts in mobile phones or other consumer electronics devices to filling syringes with medications and snapping on caps. In addition, they can be easily moved from one place to another and reprogrammed to do different tasks, sometimes simply by moving the robot’s arm and showing it what to do.

Then there’s the safety issue. Thanks to sensors that can detect how close the robot is to something and when it’s making actual contact, the devices can work with people without the danger of potentially breaking someone’s arm—or worse.  Typically smaller than a real person and with plenty of rounded edges, they’re also usually painted in human-friendly colors like white vs. the traditional, alarming red or yellow. “They’re designed on purpose to be non-threatening,” says Dan Kara, practice director of robotics at ABI.

Will collaborative robots replace human jobs?

One big question about collaborative robots, of course, is whether they’ll mean fewer jobs for humans. The answer isn’t clear, according to industry experts. On the one hand, some robots are taking over work once done by people. Case in point: SoftWear Automation in Atlanta, which raised $3 million in venture funding last year, working with researchers at Georgia Tech, is developing robots that can sew garments using conventional sewing machines.

On the other hand, in many cases, the robots allow people to do what Christensen calls “fewer dirty jobs and more smart jobs.” What’s more, their use will create new types of work, like robot inspection or repair. Plus, “We’re starting to see robot supervisors, where their job is to orchestrate and oversee robots’ tasks on a daily basis,” says Jim Lawton, chief product and marketing officer at robot-maker Rethink Robotics. At Panek, for example, employees manage groups of robots, checking on quality and tooling, as well as doing higher skilled work. In fact, the company has increased the number of employees to 175, from 160, since first introducing co-bots.

For now, there still are many tasks collaborative robots can’t do, particularly those using fine motor skills, like handling bundles of electrical wiring. But as the technology advances and those gaps are addressed, more companies will likely introduce the devices. “They’re too compelling not to be used,” says Kara. “These robots are going to keep proliferating.”

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About Anne Field

Anne Field has covered entrepreneurship and small business for the New York Times and Bloomberg BusinessWeek.