How Are Cobots Disrupting Automotive Manufacturing?
Collaborative robots are revolutionizing the automotive manufacturing industry through boosts in efficiency, productivity, and quality. How will this technology impact employees working in the automotive industry, though? Collaborative robots, often referred to as “cobots,” are notably different from pure robotic process automation.
These robots are not designed to fully replace the unique talents and skills of human employees. However, cobots are creating a disruption in automotive manufacturing, offering a number of benefits to businesses. How and why are these cobots being used, and what will their long-term impact be?
Applications of Automotive Cobots
Cobots are one of the top rising trends in robotics, due to their unique value and benefits. Collaborative robotics is ideal for manufacturing applications because it brings together automation’s strengths and those of skilled workers. Automation is extremely useful, but it is not so intelligent yet that it can be independently trusted with an entire automotive production process. Human oversight and assistance will continue to be a necessary part of the equation for the foreseeable future.
Cobots automate the repetitive, dangerous, or simplest parts of the manufacturing process while humans handle more complex, creative tasks in addition to operating and maintaining the robots. There are a few tasks in particular that cobots are being used for in automotive manufacturing facilities.
Welding cobots can perform spot and arc welding autonomously. These robots are a valuable asset in automotive manufacturing because they can perform a virtually flawless weld countless times with very few errors. This offers a few benefits over human welders. The cobot can work rapidly and with more safety since there is no risk of it getting burned. The computer accuracy and consistency of robot-generated welds can improve quality control, as well.
Cobots in manufacturing are often used to automate stages of the assembly process. They might lift and place a heavy car roof or place and screw in bolts. Many steps of the assembly process are highly repetitive, which makes robots better suited to them than people. Robotic arms with specialized end-of-arm tooling are often used for this application.
Painting and Coating
When it comes to large objects like cars, robots are perfect for speeding up the painting and coating processes. It is especially important with a car to get even, consistent coats of primers, paints, polishes, and other surface treatments. Using a robot for this task ensures the job gets done quickly without compromising on quality.
One particularly useful innovation in automotive robotics is robot vision. This uses cameras and sensors to enable robots to “see” the world around them. With this capability, cobots can not only perform parts of the manufacturing process with greater accuracy but even autonomously scan parts for any defects. Scanning for defects and quality assurance would require an AI system to conduct image analysis, but today’s technology makes it possible to integrate AI and robotic systems.
Benefits of Cobots in Manufacturing
Why are cobots being used in automotive manufacturing? Do they really have an edge over human employees? In some ways, yes. The automotive industry is facing a unique set of challenges today that augment the advantages of cobots even further.
Robots are generally more efficient than people by nature. A robot can perform the same task indefinitely without diminishing quality over time. A robot is less likely to get damaged on the job since it will typically be stationary and confined to a programmed set of movements. However, if it does get damaged, repairs are almost always possible. A person getting injured on the job is far more serious.
The issue with moving to a fully robotic workforce is that robots are capable but not as capable as humans. This is at the core of cobots’ popularity, particularly in automotive manufacturing. Using robotics in the manufacturing process has excellent benefits for safety and productivity, but there are still many things humans are inherently better at than robots. For example, humans can think creatively, intuitively, and with far more flexibility than a robot likely ever will. Cobots bring together the benefits of robotics and the natural strengths of people.
In fact, one of the top benefits of cobots is the optimized interaction and efficiency between humans and robots. Cobots take robotics and adapt them to be human-friendly, designed for human interaction and collaboration. The creativity and judgment capabilities of an employee at an automotive manufacturing facility can be applied to the safe, effective actions of a robot. Cobots work more safely side by side with humans than traditional robots would. For example, an employee could be operating a finishing sander to perfect a car’s quality at the same time that a cobot performs a rough sanding job on the other side of the car.
How Do Cobots Affect Employment?
There has been a rising concern over recent years that robots are on track to eliminate millions of working-class jobs. However, this is unlikely to happen, at least not at any time in the foreseeable future. Employees in the automotive manufacturing industry are not likely to begin losing their jobs to robotic arms. There are a few reasons for this.
The COVID-19 pandemic seriously rattled the automotive industry in 2020 and the ripple effect has been long-lasting. When automotive manufacturers were forced to slow down production significantly in 2020, demand for new cars did not slow down in parallel. So, in 2021 and going into 2022, the industry is struggling to meet demand and make up for 2020 productivity losses. The emergence of COVID-19 variants has not helped, either. Many automotive manufacturers are struggling to find enough employees, having lost many to other jobs, industries, or even fears of catching COVID-19.
So, the automotive industry is experiencing a severe shortage of workers. This lends itself to increased implementation of robotics to make up for unfilled jobs. As a result, the work environment will likely improve for automotive manufacturing workers who will be under less strain with cobots around to help out. Cobots are not going to be removing people from their jobs but rather filling the gaps left by industry-wide labor shortages.
Additionally, as mentioned above, there are many things that robots simply cannot do. Humans will always be part of the process. Cobots simply augment the abilities of people and make the workplace safer and more efficient. Even jobs that are rendered obsolete by robots one day will be replaced with new jobs, such as maintenance specialists for the robots.
Working Together to Build Better
Cobots are disrupting the automotive manufacturing industry in the best way possible: by helping out employees when the industry needs it most. These robots are not created to replace human employees. They are meant to fill labor shortages and make the workplace safer and more productive, which the automotive industry needs right now. With cobots, automotive manufacturers can create new vehicles in a workplace optimized for the skills of people and the strengths of robots.
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