Robot, cobot, or human: What’s your shop’s labour strategy?

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Robots and cobots are now an integral piece of the manufacturing landscape, as are the humans who master them—time to automate. PHOTO courtesy TRUMPF.

By Kip Hanson

I was tempted just now to leave the words “human being” off this article’s title. That’s not due to a lack of respect for us flesh and blood worker bees, but rather the industry-wide shortage of skilled labour that only promises to worsen over the coming years. 

The good news is that those who remain in the trades—or the lucky young people about to join it—can look forward to higher pay as well as safer and more interesting jobs, ones with titles like “automation technician” and “robotic programmer” rather than the “machine operator” and “shop helper” advertisements I applied to in my youth. 

Some of the questions these and other manufacturing people will grapple with include A) what type of robot should we purchase, B) how much will it cost, and C) once installed, what tasks should they assign to their new droid?

These are all relevant questions, and as with almost everything in manufacturing, the answer in each case is, “it depends.” With that in mind, I’ll give it a shot. 

Two types of robot exist—the so-called “industrial robot” that we’ve seen deployed for decades, and the newer, friendlier, and arguably easier to install collaborative robot, or cobot. 

Each has its merits. As just described, cobots with their “friendly” nature are a no-brainer wherever humans are working in close proximity. That’s because cobots are limited in terms of speed, power, or force, and unlike their industrial counterparts, require little to no guarding. 

That’s not to say cobots are entirely altruistic—attach a butcher knife to one’s end-effector and it will fail the safety assessment that the CCOHS (Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety) recommends all shops perform before deploying automation. Nor is it fair to suggest that traditional robots are dangerous; they’re not, but like cobots, they’re dumb machines and should be treated as such. 

Robots require guarding because they’re significantly faster than cobots and take longer to stop if a human gets in the way. This is a crucial consideration for machine tending and other manufacturing applications where cycle time is a key metric. So is accuracy, and the robot’s load-carrying capabilities—cobots come in second in each of these categories.

Where they excel is ease of use. No, industrial robots aren’t terribly difficult to program (and are getting easier all the time), but most experts would agree that cobots are simpler to set up. They also cost less, especially when you roll in the cages, light curtains, area scanners, and similar guarding measures that will probably be needed with an industrial robot. 

As for suitable tasks, cobots win hands-down in several areas. Assembly lines, packaging area, parts washing and deburring—anywhere a human is likely to stroll by or even sit alongside a robotic arm, a collaborative one is a much better choice. 

They’re also a better choice for companies who have no automation or CNC experience, although here again, neither solution is terribly difficult to master. 

It’s a deep topic but rest assured: it’s not going away. Those wishing to learn more should pick up a book or at least read a few magazine articles and then get busy picking the brain of anyone willing to share their knowledge and experience. Robots and cobots are now an integral piece of the manufacturing landscape, as are the humans who master them—time to automate. SMT 

TECHNICAL EDITOR KIP HANSON has more than 40 years experience in the manufacturing industry. He is the author of Machining for Dummies and Fabricating for Dummies and has written over 1500 articles on a diverse range of metal manufacturing topics.

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