Why Collaborative Robots Are Spiking in Sales

Collaborative robots are becoming less expensive, more flexible, and increasingly filling a skills and cost niche.

Robot sales in 2016 saw a 10% sales increase in North America, according to the Robotics Industries Association . That’s healthy growth during a time when GDP is bouncing around 1.9%. However, in the assembly territory, robot sales have increased a surprising 61% in just one year. Much of that growth is likely due to collaborative robots that are moving aggressively into assembly.

Rethink Robotics, collaborative robots, Pacific Design and Manufacturing
Matt Fitzgerald of Rethink Robotics at the Pacific Design and Manufacturing Conference. 

At the Pacific Design and Manufacturing conference in Anaheim, Calif. earlier this month, Matt Fitzgerald, VP of product experience at collaborative robot producer Rethink Robotics explained the popularity of these soft robots in his presentation, " The Reality of What's Possible with Collaborative Robots and What's Still in the Works in 2017 ." In the session, Fitzgerald pointed out the advantages of these machines that work side-by-side with human workers: “Collaborative robots are safe, easy to use, and fun. Examples include ABB’s YUMI, Rethink Robotics’ Baxter and Sawyer, KUKA Robotics ’ LBR’s iiwa, and the UR5 from Universal Robotics .”

Part of the attraction of collaborative robots is the low cost. Consumer electronics have helped make collaborative robots affordable. “Consumer devices are driving down the costs of creating robots. Fifteen years ago, you needed a laptop, and now a smartphone is more useful than a laptop,” said Fitzgerald. “The same thing is happening with robots. You can use ARM chips and a Raspberry Pi, which are not expensive. The lower cost drives innovation.”

Another factor in the growth of collaborative robots is the increasing need for manufacturing labor in the face of coming retirements. “It’s difficult to find and keep skilled labor. When baby boomers retire, there will be a skills gap. The ability to find the skilled labor is a big factor in robotics,” said Fitzgerald. “ Gartner says that in 2025, there will be two million skilled jobs that we won’t be able to fill. Collaborative robotics will help with that.”

Check out the conference session, The Reality of What's Possible with Collaborative Robots and What's Still in the Works in 2017 , which will be held during  Advanced Design & Manufacturing , March 29-30, 2017, in Cleveland.  Register today!

Flexible, Small Footprint, and Easy to Set Up

Another benefit to collaborative robots is their flexibility. Unlike the caged robots on the automotive line, collaborative robots can be easily re-deployed when products shift. “We have short product lifecycle, with a new phone every year. If you invest in fixed automation, you always need new automation,” said Fitzgerald. “With collaborative robots, you can redeploy your automation.”

For assembly and small manufacturing, shipping production to Asia is not practical. Yet even those with production offshore are seeking ways to bring production closer to their North American markets. “People want to build their products closer to home. They don’t want to have to go halfway around the world for their manufacturing and longer,” said Fitzgerald. Also, the newer robots require less space and less expertise. “Collaborative robots have a small footprint, and you don’t need a computer science degree to

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