Sure, you’ve got a robot vacuum cleaner and an automatic trash can. But the proportion of robots working outside of factories is minuscule. Industrial settings account for pretty much all the robots now working in the United States. The Bot2Karot shown here is not planting carrots in the average garden.
Industrial robots are expected to increase in number by 175% in the next nine years.
Collaborative robots, or co-bots, as Loup Ventures calls them, are smaller robots that can work safely alongside human beings. They represented just 3% of the robots sold in 2016. With so many industrial robots in place from previous years, collaborative robots make up a negligible proportion of the current robot work force. Loup Ventures expects that to change. They’re predicting that co-bots will make up 34% of the robot workforce by 2025.
What’s so great about collaborative robots? Well, for one thing, they are much less dangerous than your average industrial robots. Industrial robots are usually in cages to prevent contact with their human coworkers, and freak accidents still take place. Cobots are smaller, softer, and equipped with sensors that allow them to stop moving when they make contact with squishy objects like human beings.
They’re programmed for a wider range of tasks and more capable of machine learning, too. Together with their added sensors, this gives co-bots more flexibility. In modern manufacturing facilities where flexibility is all-important, this matters.
Cobots are also much less expensive than traditional industrial robots. Baxter and Sawyer can be purchased for less than the cost of hiring a human factory worker for just one year. That makes a cobot a practical introduction to automation for smaller manufacturers.
They may not be able to output four million beer cans a day the way a traditional industrial robot can, but they have other skills. Or at least they can be programmed with other skills.
One of the big questions: will Americans get used to calling these machines “cobots,” and if we do, will it make us worry less about robots taking our jobs?