Cobots Eclipse Humanoids: New Capabilities Shift Preference

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By George Chowdhury | 2Q 2024 | IN-7329

Decision makers should look twice at their workflows before signing up for a humanoid. At a low cost, Collaborative Robots (cobots) can achieve automation in tasks where it was previously impossible. Key partnerships are forming to further their capabilities, while third-party software offerings bring automation to nearly any workflow.

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Collaborative Robot Boom


The humanoid tsunami continues to build momentum, despite prohibitive regulation, Average Selling Prices (ASPs) far exceeding reasonable thresholds, and limited efficiency gains—nullifying most benefits. However, a robust and dexterous alternative is already enjoying widespread adoption at a lower ASP and with the blessing of regulators.

Industrial Collaborative Robot (cobot) adoption continues to accelerate compared with their longer-standing, heavy-duty industrial counterparts. ABI Research forecasts a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) for shipments of the cobot form factor to reach 15% through 2030; this is more than double the 7% forecast for industrial robots in the same period—comprehensive quantification of cobot market sizing and penetration can be found in ABI Research’s Commercial and Industrial Robotics market data (MD-CIROBO-108).

One company driving cobot adoption across manufacturing is the Massachusetts robotics company Flexxbotics. Flexxbotics’ initiatives deploy cobots for machine tending and inspection tasks with the goal of fully automating the work cell: cobots transport products between several machines in a cell, simultaneously performing inspection for quality control. Flexxbotics’ value offering boasts significant efficiency improvements, alongside time and costs savings. Key to Flexxbotics’ success is its ability to integrate into existing workflows, permitting Manufacturing Execution System (MES) integration, along with machine compatibility for a growing pool of software and hardware vendors. Flexxbotics’ success is indicative of the potential of cobots: this is a form factor that can safely integrate into any working environment, automating tasks and unlocking efficiency where it had otherwise been overlooked.

A Large Cobot Ecosystem Has Formed and Is Solidifying


The Internation Organization for Standardization’s (ISO) 10218 (and its North American counterpart, ANSI/RIA R15.08) standard allows for a broad array of robots to be classed as collaborative. The main requirements are that robots either incorporate power and force limiting sensors or they are equipped with monitored stop sensors. Monitored stop sensors are a way for heavy-duty, industrial robots to meet cobot requirements. Companies including Veo Robotics and SICK—a specialist in industrial machine vision solutions—create products to enable traditional industrial robots to fall under the collaborative criteria. Meeting the collaborative requirements dictates proximity to human workers and, by extension, the types of value chains robots can be part of. The former requirement—small robotic arms equipped with power and torque sensors in their joints—defines the commonly recognized cobot.

A significant secondary ecosystem has arisen surrounding cobots, with vendors leveraging machine vision; Programming by Demonstration (PbD); and MES/Warehouse Execution System (WES) integration to create unique and efficient value adds. Cobot manufacturers include the usual coterie of industrial robotics manufacturers—KUKA, FANUC, ABB, and Yaskawa—and in recent years, a group of vendors specializing in the collaborative form factor has emerged. Dedicated manufacturers include Universal Robots, Techman Robot (that supplies Omron), and Doosan Robotics. Of these, Universal Robots—a Danish company founded in 2008—has a controlling share of the market. Universal Robots, with its recognizable blue and silver form factor, owes its success, in part, to its innovator status—Universal Robotics sold the first recognized cobot—and to its extensive vendor network and partnership ecosystem.

Many Workflows, One Form Factor


Cobots can help stakeholders realize efficiency gain in tasks that include the following:

  • Welding: Driven by shortages of trained welders, cobots can be rapidly programmed to perform welding tasks. With easily recognizable performance gains, welding is a rapidly growing use case. Companies seeking to capitalize on this cobot capability include Smooth Robotics and Hirebotics.
  • Machine Tending: Cobots can be used to control, load, and unload Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machines; providing a productivity boost within most discrete manufacturing facilities. Robotiq and Vention are examples of companies active in this space.
  • Visual Inspection/Quality Control: With the help of machine vision value adds from third-party software vendors, cobots can perform visual inspection while performing other duties. Previously, a human worker would inspect the output of a CNC or milling machine, amounting to hours of lost labor time. Flexxbotics is currently experiencing success and broad market penetration with this application.
  • Picking/Material Handling: A significant addressable market exists within manufacturing along with the Third-Party Logistics (3PL) space for dexterous cobots capable of palletization, loading and unloading, singulation, and picking heterogeneous goods from crowded bins. Here again, machine vision value adds enable cobots to perform these roles—tasks previously reserved for human workers due to the complexity of automation. Companies including Reeco Automation, and many of those already listed, provide solutions to address these challenges.

At NVIDIA GTC 2024, NVIDIA unveiled its Isaac Manipulator product—a collection of foundation models and libraries dedicated to improving robot manipulation capabilities. In the wake of the announcement, Teradyne Robotics—the parent company of Universal Robots—announced a partnership with NVIDIA to deploy Isaac Manipulator to augment its product lines. The partnership could signal a step change in cobot capabilities, enabling improvements such as an increase in the complexity of possible tasks; improved control and flexibility; and potentially Large Language Model (LLM) integration.

Decision makers should be aware of the existing value offering of cobots and third-party software, while bearing in mind potential automation on the horizon.


Companies Mentioned