How China's 'Cobot' Revolution Could Transform Automation
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The cooperative robot model that China is expanding could hold vital lessons for other developing economies that also rely heavily on small businesses.
By Ben Halder
There’s a “factory of the future” being built in Shanghai, with $150 million in investment from Swiss-Swedish automation giant ABB. Slated for completion in 2020, the factory is a place where “robots will make robots,” according to ABB. But the cutting-edge robotics technology the facility hopes to showcase won’t cater only to heavy industrial needs. It will also largely feature “collaborative automation solutions” — known as cobots — that work with humans instead of replacing them. The facility is evidence of an emerging Chinese automation strategy that’s beginning to reshape the world’s approach to robotics.
The archetypal image of a futuristic factory involves droves of fully automated robots working nonstop — not a human worker in sight. In countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines, the United Nations’ International Labor Organization predicts automated machines will replace some 137 million workers over the next 20 years. But a scenario like that could prove catastrophic for China, the world’s most populous nation. That’s why China — already at the forefront of the global robot revolution — is laying the foundations for an alternative model: an industrial landscape where cobots will work alongside human workers to create a semiautonomous production process drawing on the strengths of both.
Denmark-based Universal Robots, the world’s largest cobot producer, predicted in a late 2017 report produced with the Shenzhen Gaogong Industry Research Consulting Co. that China’s cobot market, worth $54 million in 2017, will be worth $190 million by 2020, comfortably the fastest-growing market globally. That will include at least 12,000 collaborative robot units. While the ABB factory is a jewel in China’s crown, it’s not the only one. Telecom firm ZTE and manufacturing giant Foxconn are purchasing greater numbers of cobots. In November 2018, Chinese technology company Lenovo partnered with market intelligence firm IDC to set out its vision for the future of production built around collaboration between humans and machines.
Others are embracing collaborative robot technologies too. International demand for cobots is predicted to increase tenfold between 2015 and 2020. The global cobot market is expected to touch $9 billion by 2025. But it’s China that’s driving the explosion of this market like no other country — its demand for cobots is increasing at 110 percent annually, compared to 60 percent globally.
Collaborative automation solutions will … allow people and robots to work closely and productively together.
Nicholas O’Donnell, external affairs manager, ABB Robotics
Unlike robots, cobots aren’t meant for fully automated large-scale industrial production; they’re designed to take on a range of tasks aimed at assisting their human co-workers, making them particularly attractive for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that are the backbone of most emerging economies. That’s why China’s new strategy — SMEs account for 90 percent of business entities in China, and 60 percent of the country’s gross domestic product — also serves as a template that countries from India to Indonesia, Egypt to Ethiopia, will watch closely. Research shows they could also be particularly useful for workers with disabilities and have applications in a home environment.
“Traditional robots have been an important part of the automotive industry for a very long time,” says Adam Sobieski, general manager for China at Universal Robots. “But other industries, especially SMEs, have a higher requirement for flexibility. This means faster growth rates for cobots.”
Pedro Neto, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Coimbra, Portugal, notes that cobots work at a lower velocity than industrial robots and are designed to sense the movement of users in close proximity, making it safer for humans to work alongside them.
Cobots are also capable of interacting intuitively with human users in a much more fluid way “by combining the coordination and cognitive capabilities of humans with the robots’ accuracy and ability to perform monotonous tasks,” Neto says.
What are cobots?
Collaborative robots, or cobots, are robotic machines that employ visual sensors and rely on sensitivity to physical contact and lower operational velocities to ensure workers can operate safely in close proximity to them. The flexibility of cobots, and the relative ease of use compared to fully automated robotic systems, makes them an affordable and highly attractive alternative for small- and medium-size businesses looking to automate certain aspects of their production process.
The ability to work safely — and in tune — with humans makes cobots particularly useful for workplaces with workers suffering from physical disabilities, German firm Bosch found in 2018 research funded by the German federal government. KUKA, the German robot manufacturer that produced the first cobot, was recently acquired by the Chinese home appliances firm Midea, suggesting we may soon see cobots usable in our own homes.
The concept of a cobot first came up in the mid-1990s, but until recently, collaborative automation has stayed a tiny part of the overall robotics industry — cobots constitute about 5 percent of the global robot market at present. But cobots are catching up, and fast. According to market analysis firm ABI Research, the global revenue from collaborative robots is set to grow at an annual compound rate of 49.8 percent between 2016 and 2025, compared to 12.1 percent for industrial robots and 23.2 percent for commercial robots. It’s the Asia-Pacific region that will dominate within the cobot industry — 68 percent of all collaborative robots will be bought in the area by 2025, according to ABI Research. And leading the region in cobot demand is China.
That growth in demand is partly because cobots are more affordable than they were. The average cobot now costs around $24,000 compared to $35,000 in 2017. This is expected to drop to below $20,000 by 2020. “Advances in machine learning techniques, cost reductions in technology and cost increases in human labor are now making collaborative robots more economically viable for smaller and midsize businesses,” says Lionel P. Robert Jr., associate professor at the School of Information at the University of Michigan. Cobots offer greater flexibility and are easier to program and operate than fully automated systems, meaning companies can use them for multiple processes and don’t require detailed technical know-how — ideal attributes for small firms.
That flexibility will be on display at the ABB facility in Shanghai. The “collaborative automation solutions” will “allow people and robots to work closely and productively together, sharing tasks for greater flexibility without the need for fences,” says Nicholas O’Donnell, external affairs manager at ABB Robotics.
But China isn’t just a giant market — it’s also drawing large foreign investment in the sector, as the ABB factory shows. That’s because it boasts advantages other countries can’t match. There’s an infrastructure environment for deploying and field-testing cobots that’s on par with developed nations, according to Robert. Similar attempts to implement collaborative systems in the U.S. have sparked concerns over safety that have in turn led to cobots being underutilized because of excess caution. In communist China, such concerns are “less likely to influence whether cobots can be deployed,” he says. The data collected from these real-world applications is helping to improve cobot technologies, paving the way for the next generation of collaborative robots.cobots can be deployed,” he says. The data collected from these real-world applications is helping to improve cobot technologies, paving the way for the next generation of collaborative robots.
Larger businesses that can afford to fully automate their production process and employ engineers with the knowledge to program and maintain more complex systems will still have little use for cobots. And restrictions, such as limited payloads, still exist despite advances in the technology. But for businesses unwilling or unable to employ a full range of traditional robots, cobots are an increasingly attractive proposition for modernizing their production line. And as these businesses search for a model to follow, they’ll likely look at one place first: China.
- Ben Halder, OZY AuthorContact Ben Halder