How Co-Bots Are Disrupting SME Manufacturing And Driving Productivity

Patrick Lamm

Advancements in computer vision, artificial intelligence, and motion-sensing capabilities are creating a new generation of robots known as collaborative robotics, or “co-bots,” As co-bots go mainstream, they’re disrupting discrete manufacturing, especially for small and midsize manufacturers. Co-bots bring enhanced productivity, quality, and efficiency to industrial applications. Multiple motion- and force-detecting sensors make it safer for co-bots to collaborate side-by-side with their human counterparts. Analysts predict massive growth for co-bots over the next decade. Is your business positioned for success?

How collaborative robotics are driving efficiency, cost reduction, and productivity

While robots have long been assigned tasks that were repetitive, onerous, or dangerous, they haven’t been able to take on tasks requiring high precision and dexterity. Industrial robots typically performed simple, routine tasks on the factory floor, leaving complex or less routine tasks to humans. But rising labor costs are changing this calculus for many small and midsize manufacturers. These manufacturers need a solution to increase productivity while reducing labor costs. Collaborative robots working in close proximity to humans are the solution. Business Insider reports that “co-bots can boost productivity with the same number of workers or replace workers altogether.”

Co-bots boost productivity because they are not only cheaper and faster than industry robots, but they’re also smarter. Unlike industry robots, which are typically caged while doing tasks in order to keep humans safe, co-bots have integrated sensors and soft, rounded surfaces. These sensors and design features reduce the risk of accidental pinching or crushing, making co-bots safe for human interaction.

Co-bots also have force-limited joints, which can sense and react quickly to forces due to impact. These joints mean co-bots have more “human” capabilities, like dexterity, memory, sensing, and trainability. As a result, co-bots are able to do more jobs, including testing and inspecting products, picking and packaging products, and assembling electronics.

Collaborative robots reduce human idle time by 85%

As robots move from fixed, caged locations to workstations alongside humans, these co-bots are poised to revolutionize the SME manufacturing sector. For example, low-cost plug-and-play robotic tools can easily fit into the manufacturing process. A human-machine study conducted by MIT researchers at a BMW factory found that teams made of humans and robots are more productive than teams made of either humans or robots alone. This cooperative process reduced human idle time by 85%.

Increasing productivity translates into immediate value. For example, the cost of downtime ranges from $8,000 to $22,000 per minute, depending on the industry segment. Decreasing or eliminating this downtime while also reducing labor costs can significantly lower bottom-line costs for manufacturers. In recent years, most manufacturers used continuous improvement methodologies such as Lean and Six Sigma to drive productivity. But as returns on these approaches diminish, companies must accelerate with the application of new technologies, such as robotics.

The small and midsize manufacturing marketplace comprises 6 million companies worldwide and almost 70% of the world’s manufacturing. PwC reports that more than half of all small and midsize manufacturers are currently using some form of robotics technology. These numbers are expected to jump in the coming decade as smaller manufacturers rush to adopt co-bot technology and unlock new productivity pathways. For example, the International Federation of Robots and Loup Ventures predicts that overall robotics spending will climb to $13 billion in 2025, with automotive and electronic verticals driving most of the demand. Manufacturers that invest now in the next generation of robots stand to gain a critical competitive edge.

The need for IoT integration with edge computing

Collaborative robots are equipped with far more sensors than their assembly line counterparts. These sensors generate constant data that needs to quickly be transmitted to the cloud for instant processing. Currently, cellular connections like 4G LTE often can’t transmit this data fast enough, which leads to lag times in processing. Edge computing, which processes data locally, removes the need to transmit large amounts of data to the cloud. An estimated 5.6 million IoT devices will be connected via edge computing by 2020. The result: more companies will be able to deploy collaborative robots to speed productivity.

Learn how to innovate at scale by incorporating individual innovations back to the core business to drive tangible business value by reading Accelerating Digital Transformation in Industrial Machinery and Components. Explore how to bring Industry 4.0 insights into your business today by reading Industry 4.0: What’s Next?

Patrick Lamm

About Patrick Lamm

Patrick Lamm is a director of Industrial Machinery & Components in the Industrial Machinery & Components Industry Business Unit at SAP. Before Joining SAP, he held various positions at Hewlett-Packard as business analyst in strategic supply chain planning and as business process and SAP engineer in multiple divisions going back to 1998. Starting at SAP in 2004, Lamm held the position of Senior Business Consultant focusing on strategic projects in supply chain management and IT Strateggy. Since 2008, Lamm is part of SAP's Industry Solution Management organization for Discrete Industries supporting partners and customers leveraging SAP solutions.