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Rise of the machines! The value of collaborative robots in prefab

May 9, 2024 | By Treena Hein

May 9, 2024 – If you haven’t put much thought into why you might purchase a cobot for your prefab shop, now is a very good time to do so. Designed to work alongside human operators—where they collaborate on part of the overall manufacturing process—collaborative robots (cobots) have never been more versatile and safe, and provide so many benefits, including an ROI that has never been faster.

Putting cobots in a recent historical context, Nicolas Durand explains that, in the past, leaders of smaller manufacturing companies who looked at using robots likely had conversations about completely automating a task. For them, this was (and still is, in many cases) not feasible due to task complexity and high costs.

“Those discussions are now long gone,” says Durand, who is vice-president and general manager at ABB Robotics Canada. “Now the conversation is about which tasks in a given part of the production process require a human for whatever reason, and which repetitive—and even punishing—tasks can be removed from that worker.”

“It’s about examining which part of the process involves monotonous or physically demanding tasks,” Durand continues. “Those [tasks] that are not only difficult to sustain mentally but cause repetitive strain injuries might be done by a robot, making work more rewarding and enjoyable, and increasing throughput at the same time.”


These are the broad advantages of today’s cobots. For smaller manufacturers, their presence makes it easier to attract/retain employees, and boost productivity in a safe and reliable way.

Let’s look at an example where the main task of one of your employees can be broken down into three parts. A cobot is introduced to take over two of those parts, carrying them out quickly and consistently (maybe selecting two different parts from two bins and bringing them together in the correct orientation). The human does the third task of attaching those parts correctly. As the worker does this, the cobot is already fetching and bringing together the next set of parts.

Throughput increases dramatically and the job is easier and much more rewarding for that worker. Employees only carry out tasks that require their skills, skipping the menial, repetitive ones. The same level of production that used to take days can be achieved in just one.

Possibilities in prefab

In an electrical shop, a cobot could manipulate a part into the correct orientation for the final torquing of all screws for example, or it could bring wires together for a worker to crimp the connectors.

(Note: there are cobots available in the market equipped with vision systems and dexterous grippers that can accomplish delicate tasks like crimping, and also carry out many types of inspection, but these applications may well be unaffordable for a smaller shop, especially when the shop does short runs. Also, while robots can certainly resupply employees with raw materials and transport finished pieces to other areas, these are not truly collaborative scenarios.)

In looking at how fast a cobot pays for itself, there are estimates that as many as half of many manufacturing tasks can be carried out by cobots, and productivity could be increased by the same percentage. Of course, this would vary by scenario. The current lower costs of cobots compared to years ago also make ROI swift.

Will Healy III, global industry manager at Universal Robots, says that when working with a collaborative robot solution provider or system integrator, an organization can typically realize their ROI in a year, depending on the complexity of the application.

Another large ROI factor for the electrical prefab shop owner is the flexibility of cobots. They can easily be equipped with different attachments and their programming changed to carry out different small runs. They might also be modified to take part in two different parts of a manufacturing process during different hours each day or on different days of the week.

On the programming front, Jason Bowen, national business development lead for robotics at Westburne, notes that choosing among the different programmed actions that make up a finished task is simpler than people might think.

“Cobots from Kinova, whom we represent, do not require advanced programming in many cases,” he says. “In these scenarios, through a no-code visual programming environment, you click on a desired function—such as Move, Open Gripper, and so on—hand-guide the attachment into the correct position, and so on. This makes their implementation very simple for any user.”

And with workforce challenges the way they are right now, Healy encourages shop leaders to consider factors beyond the financial ROI and how the cobot investment has a positive impact on worker engagement and employee retention.

“By eliminating the dull, dirty and dangerous tasks, cobots are bringing a powerful ‘ROE’ or ‘Return of Engagement’,” he explains. “This ROE reduces costs due to worker compensation, attracting workers, onboarding and more.”

Safety and worker training

As with any other new piece of equipment, cobot implementation requires worker training to ensure safe interaction. On the regulatory side in Ontario, cobot implementation requires a Pre-Start Health & Safety Review while, across Canada, implementation of standard national safety requirements.

In Healy’s view, the best and easiest way to ensure compliance is to work with a cobot solution provider or local cobot system integrator. Bowen emphasizes the critical importance of assessing potential impact forces and physical zones of cobot operation.

“Cobots have features for safe usage around humans, such as collision detection, guards, and pre-set programming parameters, but all the risks must be identified and mitigated, with risk level depending on the application and implementation,” he says. “For example, a cobot with a camera poses very low safety risk if stationary and not at the height of a human head, but those that move in that height zone pose much more risk.”

Indeed, with cobot popularity increasing each year, cobot makers have developed standardized advanced safety motion control features over the last two to three years, including safe limited speed and positioning, along with advanced safety sensors. Durand explains that “for an application such as screw driving, an appropriate level of force is set for the task—only that which is required. If resistance beyond a given pre-set parameter is detected, the cobot will halt operation”.

Rise of the machines

Reaching out to an established robotics company for a feasibility assessment is the first step in cobot implementation.

“You’ll discuss what is driving the desired change: whether that’s health and safety, cost, or other factors,” Durand explains. “When you truly understand the capabilities of cobots and walk through a shop with their use in mind, you can see quickly where a cobot can be inserted to make a worker’s experience a lot better, speed up production, provide better consistency, and so on.”

At that point, ABB uses its Robot Studio software to simulate how the cobot would assume certain tasks, analyze process speed, changes to raw material placement, and the like.

“Our Robot Studio program is not an animation but the actual software that controls our cobot, and the simulation is very effective to look at performance, identify space requirements, and look at all the other pertinent aspects,” says Durand. “This is done at our Brampton, Ont., facility. Once that’s complete, we can do actual scenarios there with the customer’s part to validate.”

This also helps determines whether an integrator is needed onsite for implementation or the customer can do it on their own, says Durand. “We also have training courses, and hold open-house events in Brampton, Toronto and Montreal, where manufacturers typically bring their parts.”

Durand says these levels of education and support, along with the capabilities and flexibility of today’s cobots, make them very accessible for small manufacturers such as electrical prefab shops.

“The ease with which the cobot can be redeployed to another task, and how its programming and attachments can be changed to add more value is really amazing,” he says. “Cobots are not looked at as hardware anymore—as machines—but as an opportunity to achieve different applications. There’s never been a better time to consider them.”

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