We're used to being told how robots will replace humans in factories, after all they're cheaper (in the long run), will work 24-7, are more reliable, don't have unions, don't take sick leave or holidays, and can perform many tasks quicker.
Traditionally, robots in big factories are used to perform tasks which are too dangerous or require heavy lifting and since these often cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, they are much too big and expensive for small and medium enterprises. But now, things are changing and two companies, Universal Robots and Rethink Robotics, are building robots that don't replace humans but collaborate with them.
These robots are being used to perform the most repetitive of tasks which often have subtle variations such as the picking & placing of bottles onto different fill lines and taking objects off the production lines and placing them in boxes. When they are used in factories where engineers assemble products, these collaborative robots can be used to pick the parts, give them to the engineer, and pack the finished product in boxes, therefore speeding up the whole process.
"Having the robots has allowed us to move our existing workers into more useful tasks," Gregg Panek, owner of Panek Precision, told Wall Street Journal, adding that despite his use of robots, his small business will "always need people".
With a low starting cost of only $20,000, the investment in a helper robot can be paid off in just a couple of years and the benefits are an increased level of productivity and order fulfillment. With the smallest robotic arm from Universal Robots measuring 500 mm and the slightly spooky looking model from Rethink Robotics, with two independent arms and display screen, with moving eyes are great companion for workers.
As companies realize that collaborative robots have a place in all manner of industries, more developers will come into the market and perhaps one day, they will be as commonplace as a photocopier.