Capable of reacting to people and not just following pre-programmed commands, collaborative robots equipped with sensors enable an entirely new form of teamwork. This in turn allows companies, especially SMEs, to boost their competitiveness.show more
Colleagues of steel: collaborative robots
German industry currently deploys 290 multi-functional robots per 10,000 employees - and that figure is only expected to rise. Yet instead of replacing human workers, the machines are more typically becoming their colleagues. Collaborative robots, known as 'cobots' for short, are part of a new generation of robots that work hand-in-hand with their human colleagues.
Interactive, flexible, safe
Unlike traditional industrial robots, which perform their work in physically isolated units, cobots come into direct contact with their human colleagues. Using sensor technology, they observe the movements and position of persons - making them safe enough to assist workers directly with their work without exposing the humans to the risk of injury. Cobots are flexible, easy to program and easy to move. In some cases weighing just ten kilograms, the collaborative lightweight robots can easily be carried by a single person and put into action wherever desired.
Challenging tasks instead of physical loads
The auto industry is working on the vanguard of collaborative robot technology. Articulated robots have been installed for several years now alongside their human colleagues in the production halls of vehicle makers BMW and Ford. They work independently to apply sealants to auto doors and hand tools as needed to skilled technicians as they make their way through on complex installations. The employees are freed up from monotonous and physically straining tasks - and can instead focus on the complex installation itself.
Strict safety rules have been formulated for working with cobots, all intended to minimize the risk of injury by employees in industrial production. One approach is based on "direct guidance," meaning the robot only moves upon receiving direct input from a human, such as by touching the robot arm. This ensures the employee has complete control over the cobot at all times. If, by contrast, a collaborative robot is to be allowed to move without direct human guidance, then the shared activity must be constantly monitored. If the prescribed safety zone between human and cobot is violated, then the robot automatically slows its movements to prevent injuring the employee. If a so-called "monitored stop" is in place, then the co-robot comes to an immediate standstill when a human enters its working space.
The most important security measures by far, however, are restrictions on how fast the robot may move. The robot's speed and power is permanently throttled so that it cannot harm employees even when moving. If a person moves unexpectedly and without supervision into the cobot's working space and is struck by a robot arm, the power behind the movement is never strong enough to cause serious injury.
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