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‘Cobots,’ new wave of robots seen as complementary, ready to lend an arm

Don’t fear the “cobots.”

They are here to work with employees, instead of take their jobs.

As manufacturers look for ways to be more productive, they are starting to make greater use of cobots, a term short for collaborative robots. They are a less-expensive form of automation, partly because cobots don’t require all of the safety guards required to keep them separated from humans on the production floor, as commonly seen with robots used in automotive plants.

Two experts who spoke at the downtown Buffalo Manufacturing Works on Friday said they view cobots as a “disruptive technology,” along the lines of 3-D printing, with the potential to significantly change the workplace.

Gardner Carrick, vice president of strategic initiatives for the Washington, D.C.-based Manufacturing Institute, said cobots represent the next wave of robots. The first wave, about 25 years ago, “automated out” most low-skill manufacturing jobs in the U.S. workforce, but cobots complement skilled employees, rather than replace them. They are built with sensors designed to prevent dangerous collisions between the machines and humans.

“Cobots are just coming on the market, so their penetration is fairly minor, but it’s going to take off fairly quick,” said Ron Brown, technology leader for EWI, which operates Buffalo Manufacturing Works.

One limitation to cobots’ adoption, Brown said, is the amount of weight they can handle, but that is changing. Carrick said cobots also will take off once manufacturers justify the investment, and as they apply their creativity for using cobots in production.

All types of robots – not just cobots – are attracting investment dollars and research. A PricewaterhouseCoopers report found U.S. venture capital investments in robotics has surged, to $172 million in 2013, from $13 million in 2009. And there were more than 5,000 published patents for robotics and automated systems in 2013, up 54 percent from 2009. A friend of Carrick’s in Minnesota is working on an autonomous tractor that would drive back and forth across a farm field.

Buffalo Manufacturing Works has a single-arm cobot on site, and plans to add a dual-arm cobot later this year, Brown said. The dual-arm cobot is purposely scaled to the size of a person, “so it can work alongside a human and there is less domination over the human.”

Makers of cobots have gone to great lengths to make them simple to operate, some with electronic devices that resemble an iPad. “They’ve made it intuitive,” Brown said.

While robots of all kinds are making inroads in production, Carrick said he feels the manufacturing sector needs to do a better job explaining the impact on jobs. The perception formed through the media, he said, is that “robots are stealing our jobs. What are we going to do? Is anybody going to be left in manufacturing?” This comes at a time when manufacturing is trying to recruit more young workers, as older workers retire.

“It’s tough to make the case to young people why to go into manufacturing if they think that it could be five years, it could be 15 years, but at some point a robot’s going to replace me,” Carrick said.

While robots are replacing some jobs, that is not the whole story, Carrick said. The PWC survey asked manufacturers what the biggest impact they expected robots would have on the U.S. workforce in the next three to five years: About 28 percent of the respondents said replacement of workers, but about 70 percent chose other answers that all involved creating more jobs. “If this means that manufacturers will get even more people, then that’s a really good sign,” he said.

Carrick said robots could help increase employment in areas like maintaining a plant’s robot fleet, or to handle the greater output stemming from using automated technology, particularly if additional work is brought back from overseas.

Carrick said it would be great if more U.S. manufacturers could get into actually building cobots if the technology takes off.

“We have 300,000 manufacturers in this country,” Carrick said. “If the majority of them are buying cobots, that’s a huge market that you don’t want to cede to the Germans entirely if you have the opportunity to take advantage of it.”