On a regular basis I get calls or stopped at trade shows if someone has a question about a particular aspect of the Fifth Wave market, say, in robotics. Robotics is changing so rapidly, in large part because the companies in it want to fill the orders. Currently the need is outstripping the ability to produce the robots, and robot companies are moving just as fast as they can to make headway and satisfy customers.
That description applies to the metal industries too, especially when it comes to cobots or collaborative robots. Robotic welding has been around for a generation, but cobot welding is newer than that. Now cobots are being implemented to do many things around a manufacturing floor. Here are some of the questions we get about cobots:
What is the difference between a cobot and a robot?
A cobot essentially is a robot arm (with few exceptions). Because it can lift things and has a radius or range (or universe, if you want to look at it that way) that exceeds a human reach—but not by too much—it could be said that cobots are on a human scale and can do human-scale things. Like a human, the cobot can do a diverse array of things. It is versatile, and can be moved from one area to another to perform a completely different task. A highly developed software environment helps enable the flexibility. Cobots are surging in popularity, with an expected CAGR of 32% from now until 2030.
A robot can be flexible, but its heritage is to do a task or two and do those things very well and very quickly. Cobots are closing gaps every week, but it is generally said that robots are very accurate in repetition, and very focused in scope. A tack-welding robot will not go stack boxes on the third shift, but a cobot might. Because of a robot’s truncated task list, it can do its job with astounding speed and power. The cobot might top out at 30 kg load, but at last year’s Automate show, a robot was hoisting a Corvette into the air and back down as softly as a feather.
I run a fabricating company, and we are not likely to need the dancing dog robot that I saw on Facebook.
You are absolutely on the right track. You may be thinking instead about how cool it would be to sort parts automatically. This is possible today, using two methods. Some of the larger vendors are incorporating robots equipped with machine vision systems into their laser cutters or other equipment. A built-in robot grabs the right part and stacks it in the right place. On the other hand, you could put parts into a bin and let a cobot equipped with machine vision and software sort it out while you put the next job on the laser cutter.
Other applications for you include machine tending and, if you do this, palletizing. The old line is to look for the dull, dirty, and dangerous tasks in your company and have the cobot do those things.
What is the cost of a cobot?
Like so many things, it depends on what you want. Light load tasks with a small radius are less expensive. The robot’s material construction is a factor too—you get the idea. Prices range from lows in the $6,000 range to highs in the $50,000 range. The average is said to be around $35,000.
How and where can I compare them?
One great opportunity is coming up next month (May 22-25) at the Automate 2023 event in Detroit. Many “classic” robot companies who also have cobot offerings are in the Midwest, a number near Detroit, but Ohio, Illinois, and Wisconsin have robotics suppliers too. Many of them have customer centers whose purpose is to differentiate among types and show off their best stuff to prospects.
Of course, California and the Carolinas have robotics vendors too. And in truth, Odense, Denmark is becoming Robot City much in the way the area south of San Francisco became Silicon Valley. Odense has many robot/cobot companies, some of them rather exciting early-stage startups, in addition to mobile robot makers and end-of-arm tooling makers.
How long does a cobot last?
Current estimates say that a cobot will last about 10 years if it is on a single shift, half of that if on two shifts. Some robots, on the other hand, are made so stoutly that one can expect 80,000 hours or 20 years if it is on two shifts.
What are other costs?
Maintenance costs can be low; suppliers are trying to make them as maintenance-free as possible. Some only require occasional lubrication. The other main cost is electricity. It is easy to do a daily calculation of usage unless there are wide swaths of time where the cobot just sits there. Say for the sake of simplicity that it uses a kilowatt per hour. It is used on two shifts, and thus 16 kWh per day. If your business runs 250 days per year, then 16 x 250 x (electricity charge) = electric cost. If you pay 15 cents for a kWh, then in this case you have 4,000 kWh x .15 or $600 per cobot per year. The biggest of the robots have much different costs.
Two factors that make a difference: the speed at which the robot moves (top speed vs. a lower speed) and the motion path. Generally the higher the speed, the higher the cost, plus the faster you go the steeper the cost curve is. As far as motion, smooth, curvilinear paths are the best method vs. staccato, straight-line stop/start motion. That’s why sometimes you might wonder why the robot or cobot seems to be taking the long way around (from a power consumption point of view, it’s more efficient that way).
Remember also that despite what you do for accounting/taxes, you are spreading that $35,000 (or whatever it is) acquisition cost over the lifespan of the cobot.
We are dealing with the classic question: buy now or wait a little bit to get more capability for the same or less money?
As one of my friends in the cobot supplier industry likes to say, “Now is too late.” In one sense, you might suspect that statement as self-serving. However, if you look at it from your cost point of view, why would you avoid automating a task that could be done more quickly and cheaply by a cobot without sacrificing flexibility and maybe increasing accuracy?
There is a handy calculating spreadsheet at https://www.electromate.com/robotic-solutions/cobot-cost-analysis-and-roi/. Make sure to add the electricity costs and you will be on your way to discovering your own ROI.