The collaborative robot offers something increasingly sought after on the production line and in the field of logistics – versatility and adaptability. Flexibility is the name of the game at a time when staffing issues can be complex, as we have seen during the pandemic with social distancing and staff shortages. Consumer demand can change overnight, as has been the case with the huge COVID-induced boost in e-commerce.
Size matters: small is good
Flexibility and ease of use are the key advantages of collaborative robots. By flexibility, we mean the ease with which a collaborative robot can be relocated and reprogrammed to a range of functions, specifically the ease with which it can be inserted into an existing production line or logistics setting. Though many collaborative robot companies are producing machines with larger payloads, most new collaborative robots coming on the market in the last 18 months have had a payload range of 0 to 9kg.
The key with collaborative robots is safety. They have to be able to run safely, unguarded, near people. Most collaborative robots are safe because there are limits to their speed and payload, and they stop on sensing contact with an obstacle, such as a person. The bigger the collaborative robot, the greater the risk and, to alleviate that risk, they run at a slower speed. The speed and safety of larger collaborative robots can be improved with the incorporation of sensors and software algorithms, but this all comes at a higher cost. Hence the market predominance, arising through competitive advantage, of smaller collaborative robots. Looking forward to 2024, we predict that 85.1% of shipment share will be taken up by collaborative robots with a maximum payload of 9kg.
The future of robotics – mobile collaborative robots poised to take the stage
We believe mobile collaborative robots will be the trailblazers in the world of automation in the years to come but, in the shorter term, cost will be a barrier. We have been talking about the high growth potential of these machines since the first edition of our collaborative robots report in 2018. The concept is simple, with the high flexibility of use coming from the marrying of two technologies: in a mobile collaborative robot, the robotic arm is mounted on an automated guided vehicle (AGV), and it can include many additional functional modules, such as an industrial camera, or an effector. Mobile collaborative robots have not yet been installed en masse in industry. Their development and production is technically complex and costly, but awareness of their potential is growing.
Currently, they are used in electronics for assembly tasks, in medical, chemical and machining settings and in material handling, such as the loading and unloading of workpieces. One of their first applications was in the semi-conductor sector for loading and unloading raw materials. They are also poised to make a breakthrough in automated supermarkets, and even in restaurants. The main use of mobile collaborative robots, though, is outside the manufacturing sector, and that differential is forecast to grow.
Logistics and e-commerce will continue to be the major players. Our research has found that there is no sign of any let-up here where investment is concerned. Overall, we predict mobile collaborative robot revenues will reach $117.6 million in 2024, accounting for 10.3% of the total collaborative robot market, with shipments of circa 4,000 units. In that time-scale the price of mobile collaborative robots will remain 10-20% higher than the average price of static collaborative robots, but eventually, as production of these machines gains scale, their overall price will reduce. We expect to see over the longer term a much higher annual year-on-year growth rate for mobile collaborative robots compared to that of their static siblings.
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