silhouette of person holding robot's hand

Robotics is always breaking new ground, blending technology and imagination to engineer life-changing creations, from robots that mine the ocean floor to bots that clean trash from polluted rivers. We’re always finding new ways for robots to push the limits of human ability or to improve our quality of life by taking over tasks too difficult (or sometimes impossible) for us to accomplish on our own.

But there’s a new application for robotics that dials back its role as an automated replacement for human hands. They’re called collaborative robots, or cobots, and they’re answering a growing demand for robotic assistants that can partner with humans, not just replace them.

What are cobots?

Let’s think about automation for a second. On one end of the spectrum, you have algorithms, which allow computers to carry out repeatable tasks to help humans do their jobs. On the other end, you have autonomous robots that can make decisions on their own, such as self-driving cars. Somewhere in the middle are cobots, a hybrid of humans and automated systems working together.

Cobots are designed to work hand in hand with humans by assisting them with high-precision tasks, machine tending, quality control, and light assembly. Depending on what you need, cobots can be simple helpers independently carrying out more-repetitive tasks, or they can be more diverse and collaborative, augmenting a process run by a human.

But the most important differentiator is that they are interactive. Let’s take a closer look at how that makes them different from traditional robotics.

Robots vs. cobots: specialists vs. jacks-of-all-trades

While both robots and cobots are designed to improve efficiency, quality, and precision, they do have some key differences.

Traditional, industrial robots…

  • Work for humans
  • Act independently from humans
  • Are often sequestered in cages for safety reasons
  • Aren’t typically reprogrammable because they’re engineered to perform a specific task
  • Require complex robotic engineering and programming skills
  • Process and carry out instructions but don’t learn

While cobots…

  • Work with humans
  • Act as assistants, interacting with humans
  • Share a work space with humans. They can be mobile and are safe enough to work with thanks to sensors that make them aware of humans around them
  • Aren’t necessarily confined to one task and can be deployed for different things
  • Can be operated by humans with a variety of qualifications, not just engineers
  • Are easy to reprogram
  • Have elements of artificial intelligence (AI), so can they can “learn by doing” and repeat a specific task, rather than requiring complex programming
  • Are “human scale,” so they’re more able to carry out sensitive, precision tasks

Cobots: the “freelancers” of robotic manufacturing

Scalability is at the heart of some of the biggest trends in business these days, whether it’s augmenting in-house teams with flexible, on-demand freelance talent or breaking down monolithic software architectures into more nimble, service-based deployments. So it’s no surprise that robotics has also found a way to meet the demand for more scalable efficiency.

“Advancements in robotic and control technology now make it possible for industrial robots to expand beyond their traditional manufacturing and automation roles, to support whole new classes of applications, and by extension, new markets.” Collaborative Robotics, ABI Research

Thanks to advances in artificial intelligence and relatively simple interfaces, cobots can be programmed to pivot from one task to another, and they can learn new tasks without a lot of coding. Compare this with traditional, assembly-line robots that are specially designed to do one thing and one thing only, and you see how limiting that can be for more-nimble operations.

For example, imagine a mobile robot picking up an object and handing it over to a human as opposed to a huge, hulking robot installed in a metal cage carrying out an entire process start to finish. Smaller manufacturers can fire up a cobot to help out when demand spikes, then dial it back when demand decreases.

This flexibility is making robotics a viable solution for companies in more markets, not just massive operations with big budgets and steady demands. According to ABI Research, “Small-to-Medium Businesses (SMBs) are driving the increased demand for collaborative robots, as cobots provide solutions that allow for a more flexible kind of manufacturing that makes no assumptions as to volume levels or types of products being manufactured.” In this respect, cobots are a lot like freelancer robotic help for smaller operations. Their helping hands give the humans in charge more time to focus on business imperatives.

Collaborative robotics is still young, but demand for the nimble manufacturing solutions it can provide will continue to grow—as will the demand for skilled robotics engineers.