Co-robots really ARE a BIG thing

05 October 2013

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UPDATED: October 6, 2013

Small and medium shops and factories (SMEs) are an untapped marketplace for robotics but direly in need of automation to remain competitive in this global economy. Two new start up companies: Rethink Robotics and Universal Robots have entered that marketplace. Both companies have U.S. sales in the hundreds of units; Universal has a head start internationally and has sold about 3,000 to-date, but Rethink is way ahead in the US. Both have similar 60-100/mo manufacturing run rates – so the future looks bright for selling flexible, lightweight, low-cost robots that are easily programmed, safe for humans to work alongside, don’t require a caged or roped off area, and perform at affordable metrics.

The importance of this new robotic capability and its effect on jobs was the subject of a CBS News piece on October 5. A few of the quotes from that newscast:

  • U.S. productivity and efficiency are three times greater than China.
  • Baxter’s effective cost is $3 per hour.
  • 3-5 million new jobs will happen this decade due to the deployment of Baxter and other co-robots.

Boston-based Rethink Robotics – the maker of the low-cost two-armed Baxter robot shown above on the left – has already begun to sell to small and medium-sized U.S. businesses (SMEs) as well as schools and colleges. They recently announced beginning to sell to European academic institutions.

Danish-based Universal Robots has started to benefit from sales from their new distributor network in the U.S. supplementing their growing European, Asian and International distributor networks and robot sales.

Each company has provided a video profiling how their client companies are using and benefitting from the use of their respective robots. Although these videos are public relations puff pieces, they are also an information resource describing the needs smaller companies have and the benefits offered by robotics.


Of the two companies, for the present time, Universal Robots UR robots are better able to handle industrial tasks than Baxter robots. Universal’s UR5 and UR10 robots can handle 5 and 10 kilos respectively and have sufficient torque to pull open doors and operate hand tools. They also run faster.

Universal Robots got lots of publicity last month when it became known that a UR robot was working at a VW diesel engine production plant in Germany. It was the first publicly-known instance of a robot working alongside a human in an auto factory. In that example, the robot carefully picks up delicate glow plugs and places them into hard-to-reach drill holes alongside a human who then insulates the cylinder head. The robot acts as an assistant and enables the worker to carry out their activities in an upright, healthy posture, unlike previous methods. This week MIT Technology Review showed another Universal robot, this time at a BMW factory in South Carolina, helping workers perform door assembly by doing the strenuous task of applying door sealant thereby freeing human workers to do the less physical tasks.

In the following video, a 72-person short-run metal products maker displays two applications for their new UR robot: CNC machine tending and loading and unloading a metal bender.

[In a recent case study, machine-loaded costs for a part came to $0.97/part in the U.S. and $0.76/part in China. When a robot was used for machine tending and loading, the total cost shifted to $0.73/part in the U.S. versus $0.76/part in China (including offshore costs like duties and transportation fees). In the study, using the robot boosted efficiency. The machine utilization under manual loading was 82%, when you account for shift changes and breaks. When robots did the tending and loading, the efficiency figure approached 99%. Source: PlasticsToday and Fanuc Robotics.]


Rethink’s Baxter robots, because of their present speed and load limitations, are being used for pick and place tasks in SMEs and training and education in schools, colleges and research labs. Rethink has scheduled updates throughout 2013 and 2014 to upgrade Baxter and just released a software upgrade which enables Baxter to perform a new set of manufacturing apps. The academic version of Baxter includes an SDK capability which “presents endless possibilities for our students to create new applications. With the SDK running on ROS, students are able to share innovations and build on each other’s work,” said one college professor. Rethink has scheduled enabling the SDK feature in their industrial version of Baxter sometime in 2014.
In the following video, a 100-person plastics manufacturer which already uses industrial robots and knows their high costs and other limitations, found that the low-cost, flexible and easily programable Baxter robot, by being so adaptable, is easily able to assist them in various end-of-conveyor completion and packaging tasks.

Both robot systems use a version of the open source ROS Robotic Operating System but each has different user interfaces to that software. ROS is the predominant software used in universities teaching robotics.
In addition to providing low-cost and integrator-free robots to SME’s, another trend is occurring: providing a ROS front-end to add features to existing industrial robots. Traditional industrial robots have proprietary operating systems and require very specialized programmers to make changes, yet robot users are demanding that their existing systems add newer features such as mobility and navigation and vision enabled systems. ROS-Industrial makes the process of enabling those features less problematic and costly. ROS-Industrial was developed jointly by the ROS folks, Motoman USA and SwRI (Southwest Research Institute). The following video shows the interoperability of two different brands of robot working together on a task. I saw this process in person earlier this year at AUTOMATE 2013 in Chicago. Very impressive; very logical.


The falling cost of creating robots will surely benefit the SME manufacturing industry – as can be seen by the successes of Rethink and Universal and their robots. But they may also play a vital role in increasing productivity in other industries as well. Collaborative robots (also called co-robots) will soon be seen in many other work situations all over the world, thus co-robotics are truly a BIG thing.

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Frank Tobe is the owner and publisher of The Robot Report, and is also a panel member for Robohub's Robotics by Invitation series.
Frank Tobe is the owner and publisher of The Robot Report, and is also a panel member for Robohub's Robotics by Invitation series.

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