The Technology industry has an uncanny ability to churn out unique buzzwords at regular intervals. Cloud computing, Internet of Things, Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence are some of the notable ones. While robots have been garnering attention for quite some time now, in recent times, collaborative robots (cobots for short) are one of the most recent innovations. These might remind you of the much-loved R2D2 droid of the hugely popular Star Wars films, but cobots are much more and come with distinct business benefits.
Industrial robots have been characterised by heavy, expensive and unwieldly mechanised arm-like machines made by engineers for engineers. Universal Robots, a Danish tech firm headquartered in Odense, is at the forefront of a new emerging reality, designing a new class of robots—cobots—with the ability to work alongside employees with no safety caging. Unlike their big brothers working behind cages at automobile plants and other big assembly lines, the UR cobots are lightweight, flexible and can easily be moved and reprogrammed to solve new tasks, meeting the short-run production challenges faced by companies adjusting to ever more advanced processing in smaller batch sizes.
Pradeep David, general manager – South Asia, Universal Robots, says, “These kinds of cobots are poised to bridge the gap between fully-manual assembly and fully-automated manufacturing lines. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the SME sector, which, until now, considered robot automation as too costly and complex to consider.”
Setting the pace
As the first Indian company to implement the use of cobots in automotive assembly lines in 2010, Bajaj Auto today has more than 150 cobots driving its position as the world’s third largest motorcycle maker. “In 2010, we were looking for solutions to automate our assembly lines,” says Vikas Sawhney, general manager – engineering (robotics and automation), Bajaj Auto. “Two-wheeler assembly lines are highly labour-intensive, spatially challenged and need physically taxing movements with high-end precision. While trying to automate these lines, one of the basic requirements was standardisation. Moreover, we wanted to be cognisant of the requirements of the large women workforce at Bajaj.”
After an intensive study of the options that were available in the market, Bajaj Auto chose Universal Robots. “The key benefits such as their compactness, low pay back period, flexibility, light weight, cost-effectiveness, accuracy and safety convinced us,” Sawhney added.
David says that after three months of extensive testing, Bajaj deployed its cobots as a standardised solution for all its functional requirements. “Several processes such as material handling and machine tending were collaboratively handled by our cobots and Bajaj employees. Moreover, new decal applications which are now patented by Bajaj, were also devised by the company to make the most out of the flexibility provided by the cobots,” he adds.
Making a difference
Similarly, Aurolab, the manufacturing division of Aravind Eye Hospital in Madurai collaborated with an Universal Robots distributor in India, GI India Automation and Systems, to optimise its manufacturing processes. Precision and accuracy were extremely important in Aurolab’s manufacturing process for intraocular lenses (IOL), that included tasks such as material handling and picking and placing of the components. Besides fitting in seamlessly with the workforce, the cobots were selected for their affordability, reduced power consumption and safety, which ensured that the protective stop measure turns the power off when a load is applied to it.
Aurolab has seen a 15% increase in annual output, with the cobots at work. From 15 workers, the employee strength has gone up to 700 and it makes 10,000 IOL per day. The young untrained women who form 90% of the workforce have been easily operating and programming the eight cobots. Today, Aurolab delivers high-quality IOLs whose prices have further reduced from Rs 270 per lens to Rs 80 in the past five years. “The kind of benefit which Aurolab has received by deploying UR cobots is incredible. The quality of their products is unparalleled with minimal wastage,” said David.
The UR arms can be implemented in virtually any industry, in any process and by any employee. “Around the world, more than 10,000 operating cobots are testimony to just that: To make collaborative robot technology accessible to companies of all sizes,” says Jurgen von Hollen, president, Universal Robots (see interview).