10 Collaborative Robot Companies You Should Know

Collaborative robots -- aka cobots -- are becoming increasingly mainstream. Here are the 10 companies that should be on everyone's mind.
  • Collaborative robots -- aka cobots -- have been around since the 1990s, but in recent years advancements in sensors and automation technology, not to mention artificial intelligence, have raised their profile quite substantially.

    The debate around cobots is not likely to die down any time soon. Depending on who you ask cobots are either the next natural evolution of the workforce and will usher in unprecedented levels of productivity or it will devastate the global workforce by eliminating many skilled labor jobs. European Union legislators and Microsoft founder Bill Gates have separately suggested the idea of taxing robots in order to make up the tax revenue lost by replacing human workers. And in a recent talk at the World Government Summit in Dubai, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said that robotic automation will reach a point at which one of the only ways to sustain a standard of living for humans will be through universal basic income – essentially giving every citizen a base-level income from the government.

    However you fall on the debate, it can't be denied that the cobot space is growing. A 2016 report by MarketsandMarkets predicts that the collaborative robot market will be work $3.3 billion by 2020, driven primarily by adoption in the automotive, metal and machining, furniture and equipment, food and beverage, and plastic and polymers industries. The research cited the increasing safety of cobots as a main driver to their adoption.

    So who are the big names in the collaborative robots space? We've rounded up 10 companies that everyone should keep an eye on in the coming years as cobots become increasingly mainstream.  

  • ABB Inc

    Switzerland-based ABB builds what it calls the worlds first truly collaborative robot. The company's YuMi robot is targeted primarily at automating tasks within the consumer electronics industry. The company recently announced a collaboration with IBM to leverage IBM's Watson Internet of Things computing capabilities, specifically its Cognitive Visual Inspection tools to ABB's products. Essentially by using Watson's image recognition capabilities companies will be able to use ABB robots for product inspection tasks, even detecting flaws and defects that a human eye would miss or be unable to see. Computer vision can also enable YuMi to gather visual data to better understand tasks and take action to reduce inefficiencies and redundancies.

    [Image source: ABB Inc.]

  • Epson Robots

    Epson Robots manufacturers cobots for precision assembly and material handling in industries including aerospace, automotive, electronics, consumer products, and the medical device industry. In February the company released a new series of compact, 6-axis robots, the Flexion N-Series, designed for working in smaller workspaces. Rather than moving around itself, the Flexion robots can fold through themselves, resulting in a much smaller footprint than typical 6-axis robots. Epson has also added a proprietary vibration-reduction technology to the robots to add in performing precise tasks and handling delicate objects.

    [Image source: Epson Robots]

  • Fanuc

    Robotic automation company Fanuc got into the collaborative robotics game back in 2015 when it released the CR-35iA, a collaborative, 6-axis robot that looks to be targeted at the same market and applications as Rethink's Baxter. The CR-35iA collaborative robot is 35-kg (about 77-lb) payload, force-limited robot designed to work alongside humans without need for a cage or fencing, handling repetitive tasks or tasks too difficult or dangerous for humans. Like the Baxter, the CR-35iA can come to a gentle halt if it ever runs or bumps into a human worker, but as an added layer of safety, Fanuc has coated the robot in a green foam material. According to the company the robot maintains a contact for of less than 150 N.  

    [Image source: Fanuc]

  • Festo

    While Festo is traditionally a pneumatic and electromechanical systems manufacturer, in the last 10 years it launched an initiative to develop products in the collaborative robotics space. Festo's Bionic Learning Network (BLN) is the company's R&D effort to develop industrial robots by drawing inspiration specifically from nature. Through its collaborative efforts with students and universities, as well as development companies, Festo has already developed three cobot-related products: the BionicCobot, inspired by the human arm; the BionicMotionRobot, inspired by the movement of an elephant's trunk and octopus' tentacles; and the OctopusGripper, a bionic gripper based on the octopus’s tentacles.

    The BionicCobot (shown), for example, is a pneumatic lightweight robot with a design based on the anatomy of the human arm. Just like a human uses agonist and antagonist muscles (like the biceps and triceps) to execute movement, the BionicCobot uses a seven-joint system to mimic this same functionality, allowing it to move precisely in small environments and alongside humans.

    [Image source: Festo]

  • Locus Robotics

    Locus Robotics is an e-commerce fulfillment robotics company focused on improving labor productive in warehouses through use of cobots. In April the company unveiled its Locus Robotics Advanced Navigation (LRAN) software for coordinating multiple robots in a factory environment. A typical challenge of deploying multiple robots in a warehouse or similar environment has been coordinating their movements without creating traffic jams or safety hazards. With its cloud-distributed LRAN software,Locus is aiming to optimize their robots' navigation accuracy and performance

    [Image source: Locus Robotics]

  • Omron

    While many companies have concentrated on having cobots work in a fixed space, Omron delivers what it calls mobile robotics solutions, robots that are able to navigate and move around a factory or workspace as easily as a human worker can. The company's Lynx robot, released earlier this year, is designed for material transport in environments such as warehouses, factory floors, and hospitals, where it can be challenging for humans to move at their most efficient. The self-navigating robot uses machine learning to build and adjust maps of its work area and to then determine the best routes from point A to B in that space. It can also be trained simply by having a human worker walk it through a space to teach it the layout.

    [Image source: Omron]

  • Rethink Robotics, collaborative robots, Sawyer, Baxter

    Rethink Robotics

    Arguably one of the most well-known names in collaborative robotics Rethink Robotics turned heads a few years ago with the release of its flagship product, Baxter (shown, right), a friendly looking robot targeted at automating monotonous or dangerous shop floor tasks. The company later added another robot, Sawyer (shown, left), to its product line. Both robots use force-sensing technology to maintain safety when working alongside human workers and both are run by the company's proprietary Intera software that allows the robots to be trained to tasks and not programmed. A skilled worker only needs to walk Baxter or Sawyer through a task (literally holding its hand the whole time) and the robot can learn to repeat it in real time.

    Most recently Rethink is expanding its product offerings to a more specific arena – robotic grippers. The company's new ClickSmart toolkit uses smart sensing to allow the robot to adjust to a variety of delicate or broad handling tasks. The grippers feature rapid swapping capabilities and are designed to make cobot adoption easier for companies that aren't sure if Baxter or Sawyer can handle their specific automation tasks.
    [Image source: Rethink Robotics]

  • Robotiq

    Robotiq is a unique entity in the cobot space. Rather than manufacture its own line of robots, Robotiq produces tools for robots – specifically Universal Robots' UR line. Robotiq's products are a series of plug-and-play add-ons for augmenting the functionality of robot arms. Right now the company has four flagship products: a series of 2-finger adaptive grippers, a 3-finger robotic hand, a force touch sensor capable of adding touch-sensing capabilities to robots , as well a camera vision system (shown) for adding visual object recognition capabilities. For companies looking for faster implementation of cobots, Robotiq also offers custom program templates for many common applications.

    [Image source: Robotiq]

  • Universal Robots

    Universal Robots manufacturers a series of collaborative robot arms – the UR3, UR5, and UR10 (shown) – for a wide variety of applications including pick and place, injection molding, quality inspection, assembly, and packaging and palletizing. Similar to Rethink's Baxter and Sawyer the UR series can be trained by manually moving the arm to specific waypoints. The company has already seen numerous deployment of the UR series worldwide. Nissan Motors, for example, has implemented the UR robots into its plant in Yokohama, Japan, where the company offloads tasks to the robots in order to allow more time for training of new workers and to avoid bringing in extra relief workers to handle repetitive and time-consuming tasks. In a particularly meta move, Universal Robots actually uses its own UR series robots to help workers manufacturer the company's robots.

    [Image source: Universal Robots]

  • Vecna

    Vecna is an end-to-end product solutions company that puts its focus on robotics automation for applications in manufacturing, warehousing, and omnichannel order fulfillment. The company doesn't focus on a particular robot platform but instead says it takes an overarching approach, based on artificial intelligence to optimize workflow. Among its offerings, Vecna's robots feature proprietary computer vision technology for objects recognition as well as navigation. The robots' sensor-fusion technology employ simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM), the same technology behind many autonomous cars, in order to understand its workspace in three dimensions and navigate it.

    [Image source: Vecna]  

ATX East, Atlantic Design & Manufacturing, roboticsTHE FUTURE OF COLLABORATIVE ROBOTS IS HERE! NOW WHAT? 
Robots are becoming an increasingly important part of the economy and will drive productivity for decades to come. Yet there are problems to be solved.  Register today  for ATX East  , June 13-15 in NY,  and find out what is next in this growing industry.


Chris Wiltz is the Managing Editor of Design News.

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