Despite all the hype about artificial intelligence spawning the fourth industrial revolution, robots remain, for the most part, the preserve of big business. Forty per cent of the industrial robot market is currently accounted for by the automotive sector because, at upwards of £40,000 each, the sort of large robotic arms used to assemble cars are simply too expensive for smaller manufacturing companies.
But the rise of simpler, cheaper and less sophisticated devices called cobots (collaborative robots) is set to bring the speed, accuracy and productivity advantages of automation to Britain’s army of smaller specialist manufacturers.
Global sales of cobots are predicted to grow at 50 per cent a year, according to a research report by Market and Market, and could hit $12bn (£9.5m) by 2025. No wonder that the big guns in robots, such as Germany’s Kuka and the US’s Teradyne, want a piece of the action.
But British start-ups are also taking up the fight – outfits like Automata, founded in 2015, which makes a cobot arm called Eva. Designed to work alongside humans as much as to replace them, Eva helps to automate repetitive or fiddly processes and free up staff time for more valuable activity.
Earlier this year, Cambridgeshire-based specialist metal components maker Qualitech bought an Eva cobot to help load its metal-stamping machines. With turnover of £3m and 38 employees, Qualitech is precisely the kind of business that could not afford a traditional industrial robot, despite their advantages.
But owner Alex Craig told the Financial Times that the decision to buy an Eva was "risk free" and a "no-brainer" because of the device’s modest £5,000 price tag.
What exactly is a cobot? Definitions vary, but whereas full-scale robot arms, for instance, usually require their own fenced-off working areas to avoid the potential for human injury, cobots are smaller and, thanks to sensors that stop the arm if anyone gets close, people can share their space.
Cobots are less capable than their grown-up brethren but more than make up for this with their much lower price tag. They are also designed to be much easier to set up and operate, with intuitive app-like interfaces and simple instructions.
They may even do their bit for human-machine relations if Qualitech’s experience is anything to go by. Having intended to trial its one cobot in several different parts of the business initially, Craig admits that Eva’s co-workers now won’t part with the device, so the firm will probably have to buy more.
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