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Leveraging Cobots in Modern Warehouses

Steven Hogg | 1 June 2023

Collaborative robots’ (cobots) popularity has grown in recent years for their ability to work alongside human operators and in a diverse range of applications. These robots, specifically designed to share workspace with humans, automate tasks that typically require some level of operator intervention. Cobots have proven to be safe, flexible, quick to implement and easy to program solutions that benefit both distribution and manufacturing operations. Let’s dive deeper into capabilities and potential use cases for this advanced technology.

Maximizing Today’s Warehouses

As advancements continue to be made in this product category, newer collaborative robot models offer improved features like precision, speed, increased flexibility, larger reach envelopes and flexibility. FANUC’s new line of CRX cobots, for example, expand upon their renowned reliability and offer an estimated eight years of maintenance-free operation. The latest cobots are equipped with even more versatility and are capable of performing a wide range of tasks within a facility – from component manufacturing to packaging and palletizing operations. Unlike traditional industrial robots, they are designed to be easily programmed and reprogrammed, making them ideal for flexible production environments.

One of the most significant advantages of cobots is their safety with integrated force sensors and safety devices. When the cobot detects the presence of an operator in its workspace, it can automatically stop, slow down or adjust its operation to minimize the risk of injury.

Degrees of Collaboration

There are different levels of collaboration to consider with industrial robots as they work side-by-side, in shared workspaces, with human operators. Depending on the robot's involvement in the task and the degree of interaction with operators, different safety features are necessary to ensure a safe work environment.

Robot and operator interactions:

  • Separation: The robot and operator are separated by a physical barrier and tasks are completed in their individual workspaces.  The operator must lockout the robot as part of the lockout / tagout safety procedure to de-energize and secure the equipment. They may then enter the cell in order to interact.
  • Coexistence: The robot and operator work separately. A physical barrier does not exist or has been removed between robot and operator workspaces. The robot executes its own task while the operator is working on their own task.
  • Coordination: The robot and operator work together but each has their own individual task to perform. The tasks are sequenced so the robot and operator do not interfere with each other.
  • Cooperation: The robot and operator may be required to work together on a common task.  Force monitoring sensors for the robot, designed to detect collisions, is required for the shared workspace.
  • Collaboration: The robot and operator are required to perform a high degree of interaction. They are required to work together closely to execute the task and force monitoring is required to avoid injury.

The level of collaboration required will depend on the task, capabilities of the robot and the skills of the operator.

Determining the Right Cobot Application

When determining if a cobot is the right fit for an application, there are a few items to consider:

  • Safety: Cobots are designed with safety in mind. They are equipped with sensors and other safety features that allow them to detect the presence of operators and avoid collisions. They can work alongside operators without the need for safety barriers, reducing the risk of accidents and injuries. Additionally, the EoAT (end of arm tool) and ancillary equipment must me designed and implemented to accommodate a collaborative work environment.
  • Space: Cobots are ideal for shrinking the overall footprint of the robotic work cell. When multiple production lines are close together and floor space is limited, the size of this solution can be ideal.
  • Payload Capacity: Cobots have a lower payload capacity than traditional industrial robots. The weight of products they can handle is limited and should be closely evaluated.
  • Reach: A cobot’s reach is more compact, so typically they are deployed in applications that service a single production line and include one palletizing location on either side of the robot.
  • Speed: The throughput or rate of the production line is critical. Typically, cobots are able to handle a rate of 6-8 cases per minute, depending on the handling requirement of the product.

It's important to carefully consider these factors to understand if the application is a good fit for collaborative robots.

Common applications for cobots include:

  • Palletizing and depalletizing
  • Goods to robot picking
  • Packing and kitting
  • Small or tight work areas
  • Systems operating at lower speeds

Your Robotic Solutions Provider

As collaborative robot technology continues to advance, we can expect to see more cobots in a wide range of industries and applications. The Insight Partners estimate the global cobot market to reach over $3.5 billion by 2025. As with all warehouse automation solutions, it is key to review the requirements of specific scenarios. Cobots come with their own set of parameters that aren’t ideal for every application. Implementing the appropriate robotic arm, EoAT and supporting equipment ensures a faster ROI and positive impact to operations. Bastian’s expert integrators, well-versed in robotic solutions implemented in various industry scenarios, will be able to review your requirements and select the best solution – whether collaborative or industrial robot.

Author: Steven Hogg

Steven is the Applications Manager for Robotics at Bastian Solutions. He helps lead the robotics automation solutions for picking, packing, palletizing, machine tending, turnkey options and more. He has a Bachelor of Science in Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering from the University of Missouri-Columbia. 


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