Cobotics for Automotive: Humans & Cobots Working Side by Side

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Industrial robots are often large heavy machinery, built for welding or lifting ton-weight objects. They’re used to save humans from performing such dangerous tasks themselves. But they are also kept separate from human workers, behind fences or in cages. These robots are designed to carry out continuous repetitive tasks and can’t identify if a human enters their space, which can result in terrible accidents.

However, collaborative robots (also known as “cobots”) are different. These robots are smaller, meant to stand beside their human counterparts or sit atop workstations. They come equipped with sensors, cameras and sensitive “skin” that allow them to detect the presence of a human and pause in their task. And rather than take over the job of a human being, they perform alongside their human coworkers to make their tasks easier.

The Beginning of Cobotics

The automotive industry has been an early adopter of such machines. BMW and Volkswagen first implemented these robots as early as 2013. BMW’s cobot worked side by side with humans in door assembly. Volkswagen’s cobot inserted glow plugs into cylinder heads during engine production. The goal for both companies was to reduce physical strain on human workers by having robots perform repetitive and unergonomic tasks.

Flexible Programming Advantage

Ford – which first tasked cobots with lifting and fitting shock absorbers onto Fiesta vehicles to ease the physical strain on human workers – once joked the robots could be programmed to make coffee or give massages. But the ability to be programmed to do various tasks is another advantage of cobots over their industrial-size brethren.

Nissan initially used UR10 cobotic arms to loosen bolts on cylinder headcam brackets. The company later programmed the same robots to install engine block intake manifolds. Ford has also taken advantage of such flexibility and self-programmed a team of UR10 robots to buff the paint of Fiesta vehicles. The ability to move the robot anywhere in the factory and program it to assist any production inefficacy has Nissan considering increasing their investment in cobotics.

Increased Efficiency & Improved Quality Control with Cobots

Cobots also help increase the efficiency of work duties. In 2017, BMW’s MINI plant in Oxford installed cobots to perform repetitive riveting tasks. The robots decreased the process by 12 seconds per cycle, allowing the plant to increase pre-assembly production. Ford has developed its own autonomous robot that travels the factory floor and delivers spare parts and welding materials to workstations. This frees human employees from searching for such materials themselves, improving efficiency and production.

Audi has taken a slightly different approach to cobotics and uses the robots beside humans in quality control. A FANUC robot checks car welds in areas that would be difficult or impossible for a human to reach. And various CALIPRI robots assist in inline gap and flush checking alongside humans throughout the assembly process, including final assembly, body-in-white and rework.

The Future of Cobotics in Automotive

The use of cobots in the automotive industry doesn’t seem likely to end anytime soon. In 2018, Volvo started its own Collaborative Robot Systems Laboratory to advance further research on how robots and humans can work together. The Collaborative Robot Market specifically within the automotive industry is expected to grow at least 43% through 2022.