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OM in the News: The Rise of the Cobot (Collaborative Robot)

June 13, 2018


The robotic arm at Mofongo’s Distillery in Holland helps bartenders and draws in curious customers

Robots are moving off the assembly line, writes The Wall Street Journal (June 11,2018). Collaborative robots that work alongside humans—“cobots”—are getting cheaper and easier to program. That is encouraging businesses to put them to work at new tasks in bars, restaurants and clinics. In the Netherlands, a cobot scales a 26-foot-high bar to tap bottles of liquor so that bartenders don’t need to climb ladders. In Japan, a cobot boxes takeout dumplings. In Singapore, robots give soft-tissue massages.

Cobots make up just 5% of the $14 billion industrial-robot market, but sales will jump to 27% of a $33 billion market by 2025 as demand for the robotic arms rises. About 20 manufacturers have started selling such robots in the past decade. Smaller businesses are using more cobots as labor costs rise. Artificial intelligence software is making it easier to teach them repetitive tasks. The latest models are sleeker and safer than their predecessors, which were often confined in cages to protect them from injuring nearby humans. Cobot arms brake when they touch humans, and don’t have “pinch points” that could snag fingers and skin.

“Robots are now crossing the chasm from a niche to a mass market,” said a Credit Suisse expert. He likened the current adoption of robotics to the introduction in the late 1990s of smaller handsets that launched mobile phones into wider use. The slew of newer cobot makers has driven down prices, providing buyers with alternatives that sell for $18,000-$26,000.

Still, cobots can’t do everything a person can. Robots are getting good at repetitive work, freeing up humans for other activities, but have a hard time with more complicated actions.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. What is the difference between a robot and a cobot?
  2. How are cobots an improvement over traditional industrial robots?
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