Articles, Automation, Industry 4.0, Smart Manufacturing

What Potential Impact do Collaborative Robots Hold for Manufacturing?

This post was guest-authored by Marc Verbenkov & Ignacio Magallón from Bax & Company.

One of the most well-known effects of globalisation over the past decade has been large-scale manufacturing organisations moving operations overseas, due to various financial incentives. As a result, manufacturing SMEs in Europe and other Western countries struggle to maintain their cost competitiveness against those large-scale production facilities in low-wage economies.

The sector also suffers workforce scarcity because employees in manufacturing SMEs are often subjected to physically repetitive tasks, which don’t utilise their full capabilities, while also contributing to adverse health effects. With the inability and lack of desire to move overseas, increasing competitiveness can be achieved by offering high levels of production flexibility, which can be enabled thanks to collaborative robotics.

Unlike previous automation waves, collaborative robots – or cobots – focus on enhancing the cooperation between human workers and robots and have the potential to have as much impact, or even more, within the manufacturing sector as 3D printing or IoT. Collaborative robotics manufacturing not only allows for more efficient use of employees, more than 85% according to MIT; it also reduces health issues and raises motivation.

With this in mind, Bax & Company have partnered with leading manufacturing organisations and SME networks across North West Europe to start the COTEMACO project. This collaborative initiative, supported by the European Commission through the Interreg NWE programme, is delivering four regional field labs led by Flanders Make (Belgium), Food Tech Brainport (the Netherlands), The University of Lincoln (the UK), and ZeMA (Germany), where the targeting of key production steps in the automotive and food sectors are showcased. These field labs will help to overcome low sectorial awareness and knowledge gaps about the impact and effectiveness that collaborative robotics can bring to regional SMEs.

By testing collaborative robots in relevant environmental conditions, and allowing manufacturing SMEs to interact with them, the field labs will bring this innovative technology closer to the relevant end-users.

Matthias Vette, Group Leader for Robotics and Human-Technology Interaction at ZeMA, says: The essential part of human-robot cooperation is the human. The human must be involved in the development of new production systems in order to fully exploit their potential. We believe that without good human involvement we will not be able to achieve any long-term advantages over low-wage countries. The difference is made by the skilled worker collaborating with the robot. That’s why in our project we not only take care of the technology but also of the human.”

Matthias Hoffmann, Consultant at the Advice Center for socially acceptable Technology-Designing (BEST) confirms that a critical aspect of digitalised work is forming a unit between man and machine in an unprecedented way. “In contrast to all labour work of the past, today’s worker in a man-machine-collaborative setting merges with the cobot. Therefore, it is more important than ever before to protect man’s shape in all its dimensions – physically, but also in the sense of man’s digital footprint and the manifold ways man’s digital shadow is implemented and recursively used in the production process. Only by securing this condition, decent work can be developed in the Age of Digitisation”.

Especially for small and medium-sized companies, it is difficult to deal with robotics and automation technology for the first time. COTEMACO supports companies from the initial idea to the selection of the right technology, to the fulfilment of all safety-related functions during putting into operation. However, they are not a robotic systems distributor. They support SMEs in selecting the right technologies, regardless of the manufacturer.

COTEMACO aims to engage with 60 automotive and food sector SMEs in the field labs and work with 50 of those to implement collaborative robotics in their manufacturing processes.

Veroniek Hermans of Voka Limburg, one of the COTEMACO partners says, “The manufacturing industry is entirely dedicated to automation. Today, however, we face a new challenge. How can we make this automation intelligent and how do we align it with the qualities of our employees? The cooperation between man and machine ensures more efficient work and improves the working conditions of our personnel. The COTEMACO project inspires and supports companies to find the right balance so they can grow their business.”

COTEMACO will run for a total of four years, aiming to maintain regional turnover, NWE manufacturing jobs while also generating new jobs for which KPIs have been defined. The activities of the project will also be replicated to other sectors from aerospace to health and regions within Europe, to ensure consistent long-term benefits for all.

About the Bax & Company:
Bax & Company is an innovation consultancy firm is working on international solutions to global challenges in fields like climate adaptation, mobility, smart cities and energy efficiency.