Rise of the Co-bots – the next generation of robots revolutionising manufacturing


Baxter learned how to shake hands, wave, pass someone a cup and give a high-five in just a couple of days. All by watching people perform said tasks. A feat that is a bigger deal than it might initially sound like.

Baxter is not human, nor an animal. He/It belongs to a new generation of robots, often referred to as collaborative robots, or co-bots. These robots are poised to take on new jobs in manufacturing companies across the world thanks to their nimble, easily programmable nature, not to mention their price tag.

Leaving the cages behind

Industrial robots are traditionally big and burly - and about as safe to be around as a switchblade knife with a razor blade handle. That is why they are placed in protective cages. Collaborative robots are the opposite. Extensive sensors and limitations on movement speed and power mean that they can work directly next to their human colleagues. Advances in sensors and gripper technology make them versatile. Furthermore, they are very easy to programme. As illustrated in an infographic from robotics company Robotiq, this makes them better able to carry out new tasks like polishing and grinding.

“The result of that speed of implementation and ease of use is that you can use an employee that has no robotic training, give him a collaborative robot and within the next couple hours, you will have a working robot. Industrial robots, on the other hand, need a trained specialist spending weeks to program it,” Mathieu Bélanger-Barrette, production engineer at robotics company Robotiq, explains.

VIDEO LINK: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T8Rs6CCBIZU

Next steps around the corner

All of which brings me back to Baxter learning through observation. Collaborative robots are just getting started. Adding technologies like machine learning/AI and cloud computing makes collaborative robots a true game changer. In future, a co-robot will learn a task by watching a human perform it / watching a video and then automatically teach every robot in your company how to perform the task in the blink of an eye through the cloud.

That might still be some way off. In the nearer future, we may see the emergence of a ‘collaborative robot platform’ for automation.

“We have seen many companies coming on the market with very capable robots that have embedded cameras, force-torque sensors and that are really easy to use. In my opinion, we are getting close to having a smart-robot. I am not talking AI-smart, but robots that are much like a smartphone for automation of manufacturing processes. It comes equipped with all the tools we need, and a company will simply need to download an app, make a couple of adjustments, and the robot will be good to go. I can see that coming within the next five years,” Mathieu Bélanger-Barrette says.

Great – so how do I get one?

Technological developments have synergy with another important factor: collaborative robots are a lot cheaper than their industrial cousins. You can get one for around $24,000, making them a relatively small investment, even for SME manufacturer companies. Some co-bot manufacturers estimate the ROI time on their products to be as low as one year.

“The price means collaborative robot make sense, even if you only run small production batches. I think that we are at the beginning of an era where everybody will have a robot in their shop, just like everybody bought their first computer,” Mathieu Bélanger-Barrette says.

Investing in a collaborative robot could qualify for tax breaks. I discuss the details of how R&D tax credits and other schemes can lower the price of investing in new technologies with my BDO colleagues and experts in a separate article.

Room for growth and M&A

My positive view of the potential of collaborative robots is not unfounded. It is mirrored by data from the International Federation of Robots (IFR). Sales of industrial robots in 2016 jumped 14 percent to 290,000 units. IFR estimates that more than 2.6 million robot units will be deployed in factories across the planet by 2019.

Currently, collaborative robots account for three percent of industrial robot sales, but according to data from Loup Ventures, that figure is set to grow to 34 percent by 2025. During the same period of time, the whole market for industrial robots is set to triple in value to $33.8 billion. Some analysts believe that the estimate might even be in the low end. British market research firm TechNavio forecasts the global collaborative robots market to ‘grow exponentially at a CAGR of above 60% by 2021’.