Are Cobots Industrial Robots?


A report out in February this year published by BARA (British Automation and Robotics Association) stated that the sales of industrial robots had declined 15% in 2018, from 988 units in 2017 to 856 units in 2018. Given the investment and promotion of Industry 4.0, digitalisation and automation, back-dropped by the lack of available labour in the market and the returning of labour back to the EU as a result of Brexit, this seems somewhat counter intuitive. So what is the real picture?

Certainly automotive in the UK has been a major driver of robot sales over the past 5 years, specifically with Manufacturers like JLR ( Jaguar Land rover ), Nissan, Honda, Aston Martin and their supply chains designing in robot technology to satisfy quality, efficiency and production requirements. The big change in 2017 and 2018 is that this investment stalled owing to issues relating to emissions, popularity of diesels, electric vehicle strategy and a general drop in global demand that had been storming ahead since 2013/14.

Collaborative Robots are Industrial Robots

HMK Automation Group launched the Techman range of collaborative robots in Q3/2017 entering a relatively young market for a new type of industrial robots as they could see that the market was in transition. At the lower power end of industrial automation, HMK had seen a growing adoption of small industrial robots replacing gantry and linear actuator solutions. Rather than stitching together 3-5 axes of actuators, servo drives, motions controls and PLCs, it was becoming increasingly commercially viable to deploy a robot cell. However, these robots still needed to be fully caged, were complex to deploy and maintain and were almost impossible to re-deploy.

The Techman range of Collaborative Robots (Cobots) are actually fully industrial robots that are Simple (Easy to programme and re-deploy) Smart (have force sensing within their joints, have integrated vison capabilities) and Safe (can be programmed to work in co-operation, collaboration or in co-existence with existing labour). From a performance perspective they offer repeatability to 50 microns, move at 1.5m/sec, can lift from 4 to 14 Kg in payload and are IP54. When you consider the capabilities of the integral vision you can add shape recognition 1 and 2D code reading, focal length measuring, product counting and auto location determination for the robot and workpiece. All of these features add up to an industrial robot is even greater capabilities.

The hardware technology shares a component platform with the market leaders within the Industrial Robot sector. We share the same quality gearbox supplier, the same bearing suppliers and utilise the same brushless drive technology linking all six axes to the control via EtherCAT. Indeed, what we are actually seeing is that in 70-80% of cases our Cobots are NOT being used in full “collaboration mode”, but are being deployed with some caging, light guards and laser scanners. As with other industrial automation solutions, a risk assessment and solution CE marking is required, again identical to full industrial robots.

Historically, disruptive technology has been delivered into the market and changed industries as a result of new entrants with innovation, Nokia - iPhone, Vacuums - Dyson etc. What we are seeing is new ideas and philosophies innovating products within the market being introduced by businesses not weighed down by the baggage of large industry and history biases.

Cobots are therefore increasingly being used in replacement and addition to industrial robots but seem to fall below the headcount radar of robots being sold into industry that are being recorded by BARA. HMK Automation Group is a member of BARA and yet has not been asked for our sales numbers and I suspect that our competitors and colleagues within this emerging sub-sector, are probably not contributing their numbers either.

Government Incentives

As a nation we are frustrated with the inability of our politicians and government to effect positive change. However, we must consider that we have major tax incentives, which were implemented in January 2019 to increase capital allowances to £1m from £100,000, we also have R&D tax credits, we have £20m Made Smarter match funding in the North etc. etc. All these commercial support incentives are out there to help the UK become more productive and profitable.

It is shocking to know that according to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), the UK now has 42 industrial robots installed per 10,000 employees in non-automotive sectors of industry. That figure is less than half those of France (89) or Spain (87), and way behind the European market-leaders, Germany (on 191 robots per 10,000 manufacturing employees) and Sweden (on 180).

The future is bright

Given that HMK with their Techman range have sold almost 10% of the 2018 numbers of industrial robots sold in the UK and we are number 2 out of about 8 new comers in the UK Cobot market, I would suggest that the real figure for robot sales might be showing a 10-20% growth. Let’s embrace this technology and start reporting the real positive message that will encourage others to invest.