Collaborative Robotics Only The First Stage In A Paradigm Shift For Automated Manufacturing

by Rian Whitton | 3Q 2019 | IN-5589


Market Prospects


Buoyed by early innovators and adopters, the collaborative robotics market will become increasingly mainstream over the next 10 years. ABI Research recently found that the yearly revenue for cobot arms will reach US$11.8 billion by 2030, an enormous increase from US$711 million in 2019. More than that, the total value of the collaborative market is considerably more, when accounting for software-related revenues and End-of-Arm Tooling (EOAT) accessories. Under this broader definition of the market, the cobot ecosystem is worth just over US$1 billion in 2019 and will be worth US$24 billion by 2030, with a 28.6% Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR). 

Currently, the cobot market makes up a small percentage of the industrial market. All revenue from cobot arms comprises 5% of industrial robot hardware, but that will increase to 29% by 2030. This growth is not just related to adoption, but also to the increasing convergence of the two sub-groups. Through advances in sensors, machine vision, and motion control, industrial robots will increasingly take on the benefits of collaborative systems, namely ease of use, safety without the need for fencing, and rapid deployment for high-mix production runs. The value prospect for software innovation is strong too, growing from US$558 million in 2020 to US$10.6 billion in 2030. Most of this value will be attributed to analytics, perception, motion control, and operations-related software. The top cobot providers are effectively integrating software services and applications into a common platform for users to customize their own solutions, as exemplified by Universal Robots’ UR+ program.

The prospects for the collaborative robotics market remain strong, despite some very visible inhibitors. The hardware innovation is still trailing behind, and the value related to cobots does not come from collaboration. Instead, it comes through ease of use, re-programmability, lower total cost compared to industrial systems, and redeployability. In essence, the value is one of lowering barriers rather than building entirely new use cases for robots. What is more, cobots still trail industrial systems in speed, performance, and payload, which will have to change if adoption is to continue at this feverish rate.

Impact on Industrial Automation


The growth in the cobot market can be attributed to changes in supply and demand across manufacturing. While traditional automation through fixed robotics, conveyance, and large-scale industrial solutions will continue to grow and remain popular, it has growth limitations beyond large operations associated with automotive and electronics. Financially, industrial robotic systems are exorbitantly expensive, reducing their client base to very large manufacturers like automotive companies, consumer electronics providers, or large Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs). Considering the hardware, programming costs, and system integration expenses, one standard industrial robotic arm will likely cost more than US$150,000. Very often, the solution requires a large number of orders and industrial robot providers end up making more from maintaining their robot fleet than from direct-purchasing. Likewise, the time and costs offset to system integrators leave many manufacturers feeling frustrated. For small and medium manufacturers with fewer than 500 employees, these costs often too high, and in-house engineering teams do not have the internal expertise required to maintain and operate these machines.

Moving forward, this slow, necessarily large-scale rollout of fixed automation equipment is going to slow down because, increasingly, the demands on manufacturers are growing and becoming more varied. Last-minute orders to keep up productivity growth, increased customization to tailor to changing client demands, and the rise of high-mix, low-volume workflows in discrete manufacturing are forcing companies to be more flexible.

Cobots are, to some extent, mitigating these challenges by bringing the benefits of automation to a smaller, more manageable, and flexible scale. ABI Research has documented over 40 established providers of “collaborative arms” that meet the standard provided by ISO 15066. They are force-sensing and force-limited, improving safety through limiting the robot’s power, and generally operating with a much lower form factor and payload than industrial robots.

With 59% of global cobot shipments in 2018, Universal Robots is the clear market leader. They have managed to achieve relevance for screwdriving applications in the auto industry, attracting the business of big car manufacturers and component suppliers like Lear Corporation and Continental, while also being employed by smaller companies for Pick-and-Place (P&P) and machine tending applications. Some companies, like manufacturer Jabil, are deploying collaborative robots en masse for their effectiveness as redeployable and flexible assets in an increasingly fast-changing working environment.

The Lines Are Blurring


Collaborative robotics systems are not revolutionizing the industry so much as being the catalyst for a leaner and more flexible industrial robotic solution that opens the field up to small and medium manufacturers. As the demands of customization and high-mix, low-volume manufacturing present managers with new challenges, this technological development will be crucial in transitioning to a more adaptable solution. Much of this can be traced to the concept of Lean Robotics as understood by Robotiq founder Samuel Bouchard. Bouchard’s conception of lean robotics is not focused on the establishment of particularly new use cases, but more on increasing ease of use, interoperability, interchangeable EOAT, and fast work cell deployment and redeployment to meet the increasing demands of a more flexible manufacturing environment.

In terms of occupational safety, the current collaborative robotics systems meet International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standards, and stricter standards set by the German TUV, by force-limiting the arms, lowering arm payload, and sacrificing performance in speed. The next ISO regulatory overhauls are expected in 2020 and, in the time between then and now, hardware is continuing to improve to the point where more advanced, faster-moving, and higher-preforming robots are being developed and in turn blurring the lines between cobot and industrial robot.

A prime exemplar of this is Precise Automation. Unlike any other major cobot developer, Precise Automation develops more configurations of robot than the articulated arm, such as Selective Compliance Assembly Robot Arms (SCARA) and linear cobots that are better suited for specific tasks, and have developed an innovative, direct-drive solution that reduces robots’ internal friction and allows for quicker response times and direction changes. This allows Precise Automations’ robots to shave seconds off any specific movement, which compounds into improved efficiency over time. The company is currently primarily developing cobots for clean room laboratory work and the pharmaceutical industry and increasingly looking to provide collaborative capability to industrial arms. A key example of this is its partnership with DENSO Robotics, which is integrating Precise Automation’s mechatronic solution into its robot arms to make them meet ISO collaborative standards. This is part of a broader trend of solution providers retrofitting collaboration-enabling technology onto industrial systems. Two other examples are Veo Robotics’ proposition of deploying advanced machine vision to allow for safe interaction between humans and industrial robots without fencing, while Blue Danube Robotics is developing haptic sensors onto industrial robots and improving their safety.

ABI Research believes that onlookers should gradually unburden themselves of the dichotomy between collaborative robotics and industrial robotics. It will become increasingly irrelevant as all industrial robots gradually attain the advantages currently held by cobots.