Article AI Automation Popular 4 min read

What Is a Co-Bot?

How collaboration robots are transforming the workplace

When people think of robots, they often picture a fantastical army of anthropomorphic machines marching down the street, with machine guns for arms and freakishly soulless eyes, in a dystopian future where cars fly and humans are hunted for sport.

To those people, I say, maybe it’s time to cool it on the Will Smith movies for a while.

The reality is that we are a long, long ways away from robots being anywhere near the level of being able to think for themselves (that is, without human input)...if, indeed, it ever happens. In fact, it will probably help dispel this fear of autocratic machines taking over the world to just think of the majority of today’s robots as what they actually are: co-bots.

Robotics Business Review perfectly sums up the central idea behind cobots: “by allowing human beings and machines to work together in the same space, we harness the creativity and problem solving of people and the repeatability and tireless precision of robotics.”

Difference between cobots and robots

Co-bots, or collaborative robots, refer to any robot that has been designed to work alongside people. These robots don’t replace a human workforce, but rather, they complement us in the workplace.

An industrial robot is a mighty machine that is usually caged for safety reasons while it operates large payloads on often dangerous, heavy-duty engineer-programmed tasks in place of humans, and is often prohibitively expensive for most businesses. A cobot, by contrast, is an easily programmable, fast-learning and interactive machine that works with humans to assist with tasks that are often seen as tedious or strenuous, and they’re becoming increasingly affordable.

It may help to think of a cobot to be like an extension of your own body -- like adding extra arms or legs that can operate independently. Basically, these helpful robotic auxiliaries are going to make it impossible to use the excuse, “I only have two hands!”

Examples of cobots in action

Companies around the world are already taking advantage of the many benefits cobots offer.

  • Hyundai equips its engineers with exoskeletons to give their strength and endurance a significant boost on the job.
  • Copenhagen University Hospital uses cobots to handle and sort blood samples for analysis, enabling the lab to deliver more than 90 percent of results within 1 hour.
  • DHL has started using cobots to assist in order fulfilment. The bots work alongside humans, helping to locate and collect items for shipment.
  • In Sweden, the LEAX Group makes use of three robotic arms, which change bits in shaving machines.
  • In Switzerland, kitchen unit manufacturer Franke Esben Østergaard uses a cobot to glue mounting blocks to units. They also perform screwdriving, welding, and polishing tasks.
  • In France, cobots video Champion’s League football games in France
    • In the agricultural industry, cobots are learning to spray iodine on cow udders before they’re milked.
    • In the clothing industry, cobots are customising flip-flops based on 3D feet scans.

    How you could use a cobot in your business

    Cobots are currently used in manufacturing industries that include automotive, electronics, chemical products, and food. Among their many tasks are:

    • Packaging finished goods
    • Palletising
    • Quality inspection
    • Lifecycle testing
    • Machine tending
    • Picking things up and placing things down
    • Anything that is considered monotonous, repetitive, and sometimes even dangerous
    • Assembly of goods
    • Tool application (screwing, bolting, welding, gluing, drilling)

    The future of cobots

    Mitsubishi announced its first cobot, the Melfa Assista, in October 2019. This new cobot will go on sale in Q1 2020, and is set to cost $33,600 USD. The six-axis machine has a 900 mm reach, with a positioning accuracy repeatability of around 0.02 mm, compared to most cobots which have an accuracy of 0.1 mm.

    The company developed an intuitive Windows-based environment for programming the cobot’s movements. Users can simply drag and drop icons to set up the cobot’s arm movements, and even easily simulate operations in 3D before giving the robot the go-ahead to perform them in real life.

    The cobot has a direct control mode that allows the operator to manipulate the arm in real life - the action is memorised and recorded, so that the cobot can then repeat the motion sequence easily in future.

    As we enter the era of cobots, we’ll see increased market adoption amongst manufacturers of all sizes. Prices will become increasingly affordable, and the bots will become better at what they do as their machine learning increases too.

    Cobots will undoubtedly become more human-like in their actions, as well as in their intelligence. But it gets even cooler than that - as brain-computer interfaces develop, we could be looking at the possibility of being able to control the machines with our minds, also known as consensual telepathy. That’s probably not going to happen in 2020, mind you.

    The cobot offers the potential to transform the workplace as we know it today. These friendly, helpful machines ought not be feared, but rather welcomed. After all, whose team and workplace couldn’t benefit from a little upgrading and assistance?


    • Accessed 19 Nov. 2019.

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