Cobots: The Future of Process Automation

Cobots: The Future of Process Automation

Innovation in the robotics industry created a new market segment for collaborative robots, more popularly known as cobots. Their ease of use and cost-effective implementation open up new opportunities, particularly for smaller manufacturers. Utilizing cobots in process automation not only boosts production efficiency and safety but also provides support for human workers.

What is a Collaborative Robot (Cobot)?

Cobot is an industrial robot designed for safe collaboration with humans in shared workspaces, unlike autonomous robots that are rigidly programmed for single tasks, operate independently, and stay stationary.

Recent technological progress in AI, cognitive computing, machine vision, and touch and mobile technology enable smaller, low-power robots to be alert to their surrounding environment and perform diverse tasks safely near human workers. Apart from this, cobots can quickly acquire new skills using demonstration and reinforcement learning.

Common manufacturing tasks carried out by cobots include assembly, packaging automation, material handling, machine tending, and product quality control.

Due to a shortage of skilled workers and rising labor costs, the cobot market is experiencing growth. Maya Xiao, a senior analyst at Interact Analysis (dedicated to analyzing and providing insights on industry trends), predicts a 20%-30% annual increase in the global cobot market between 2025-2026.

Cobots have low power requirements and are often mobile, using collision detection to ensure the safety of their human colleagues and other cobots. These robots find applications in various industries, including:

  • Healthcare
  • Electronics
  • Scientific research
  • Packaging and co-packaging
  • Pharmaceutical
  • Automotive
  • Food and Agriculture
  • Metal fabrication
  • General Manufacturing
  • Supply chain management
  • Plastics
  • Furniture and equipment

Some of the key players in the robotics and cobot manufacturing sector include Universal Robots, KUKA, FANUC, Yaskawa Electric Corp., Techman Robot, and Rethink Robotics.

Benefits of Cobots

Cobots bring significant improvements to the working environment for individuals and provide several benefits for industrial and manufacturing settings, among which some of the most common ones include:

  • Human worker safety –Cobots are especially reliable when there are difficult and repetitive tasks that are extremely dangerous and unsafe for humans, such as welding, soldering, chemical handling, foundry work, or tasks that involve heavy lifting.
  • Flexibility – Cobots exhibit high adaptability and can be quickly programmed for new tasks. Typically, a human worker uses a human-machine interface that is connected to a mobile tablet to reprogram the cobot as required, reducing downtime and enhancing flexibility.
  • Accuracy – Cobots maintain consistency in their force and operation, guaranteeing identical quality, accuracy, and consistency.
  • Productivity – By handling monotonous, hazardous, and repetitive tasks, cobots contribute to speedy operations and enhanced productivity.
  • Reduced production costs – Cobots are engineered to streamline and enhance efficiency in production settings, ultimately contributing to an improved bottom line.

Use Cases of Cobots

Cobots find diverse applications across various sectors globally, with assembly tasks involving precise and intricate actions like insertion, screwdriving, and part fitting contributing to efficient and repetitive assembly processes.

In dispensing applications, cobots leverage torque sensing to undertake projects like gluing, sealing, and painting. This not only enhances precision but also minimizes waste, making cobots invaluable in tasks that require controlled and accurate dispensing.

Furthermore, cobots play a crucial role in finishing tasks, employing force control mechanisms to ensure consistent and high-quality polishing, sanding, and buffing of materials. This adaptability to the required force contributes to the reliability and repeatability of finishing processes.

In machine tending, cobots are indispensable for handling diverse projects, such as Computer Numerical Control or CNC operations, injection molding, and meticulous in-circuit testing. Their ability to check each component individually for damage underscores their versatility in ensuring the seamless operations of various manufacturing processes.

How Cobots Fit into the CX Space

In the current business landscape, interactions with prospects and customers are often confined to rigid categories or self-service or human assistance. Processes and technologies are typically designed with a binary perspective, assuming that these interactions fall neatly into either automated or human-handled tasks. However, there are instances where the boundaries between these categories blur, and a collaborative approach is needed.

In customer service and sales, tasks are traditionally segregated between CX automation and human intervention. Yet, there are scenarios where a seamless collaboration between automation and the human touch is not only beneficial but necessary.

Imagine a scenario where self-service applications and human agents are supported by bots, working together harmoniously. This blended approach of cobots explores the synergy between humans and bots to enhance task completion.

The term cobot originated in the 1990s, coined by J. Edward Colgate and Michael Peshkin from Northwestern University. A 1997 US patent filing described cobots as a method for direct physical interaction between a person and a computer-controlled manipulator.

Applying a similar methodology in sales and service, envision a typical interaction with any business. It commences with online self-service, transitioning to bot assistance, and then seamlessly connecting customers with a human agent.

During the above interaction, both the agent and the bot collaborate, with the bot providing knowledge and insights. The transaction may then loop back to self-service, incorporating bot assistance once more. In this scenario, humans and cobots collaboratively support both customers and agencies.

It is important to note that this approach doesn’t entirely replace human interaction. There are tasks where human expertise is irreplaceable, such as in complex or non-linear transactions. Situations requiring empathy and instances where the cobot may not be effective.

The symbiotic relationship between humans and bots is about enhancing capabilities rather than replacing the unique strengths that humans bring to certain aspects of customer interactions.

The Agents’ Take on Cobots

Research indicates that agents are embracing this paradigm shift. In a UK study by Genesys, nearly two-thirds of employees expressed appreciation for new technological tools like AI in the workplace. 64% of them found that these tools enhance their effectiveness, enabling them to focus on other tasks.

Interestingly, these agents do not perceive technology as an imminent threat. A significant 59% believe that AI or bots won’t replace their jobs in the next ten years. On the contrary, they view AI as integral to business success, with more than one-fifth stating that they consider AI or bots crucial for their companies to remain in the competitive market.

How CX Evolves with the Cobot Market

Service delivery and CX, in this context, is not a simple dichotomy but rather a nuanced blend of automation and human engagement tailored to achieve or deliver optimal outcomes. It’s not a binary struggle of humans versus machines; rather, it represents a collaboration of humans with machines.

The envisioned future involves the evolution of customer experience, where AI and bots transform into customer engagement cobots in the truest sense.

Service robots are often classified as cobots due to their collaboration with humans, marking a departure from the traditional setup of industrial robots working in isolation behind protective barriers.

Under the lens of modern CX evolution within the cobot market, one notable advantage of employing service robots lies in their adaptability to the unique requirements of each business.

For instance, a business might opt to utilize a robot for order handling while reserving in-person customer interactions for human agents. This strategic customization enables businesses to concentrate on their core services while maintaining a high standard of customer care.

Another significant merit of service robots is their automation capabilities that streamline operations and liberate employees to engage in more strategic responsibilities like marketing or sales.

This dual benefit allows businesses to cut costs by automating routine and time-consuming tasks, enabling their workforce to allocate time more efficiently to critical aspects of the business.

Transforming CX With Cobots

Service robots are revolutionizing CX in three primary ways:

  1. Quick problem identification – Service robots are quick to identify and address customer issues, saving both time and money. By checking account status, tracking interactions, and sending timely notifications during certain milestones or thresholds, service robots contribute to customer satisfaction and enhance business efficiency.
  2. Replacement of human agents for certain tasks – Some companies are opting to replace human CX agents with service robots for certain tasks to cut costs and elevate customer satisfaction. These robots can perform tasks like answering calls, processing complaints, and issuing refunds quickly, allowing businesses to focus on their growth without compromising on the customer experience.
  3. Efficient multitasking – Service robots enable efficient multitasking, performing various customer service functions simultaneously. This capability allows businesses to redirect human resources to other high-priority tasks that require immediate attention, promoting growth and operational effectiveness. The result is an enhanced CX and streamlined business operations.

With the evolution of cobots, we will see collaborative automation playing a pivotal role in shaping the future of automation across various industries and sectors, revolutionizing the collaboration between humans and automation to achieve higher efficiency and success.

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