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How Many Cobots Does it Take to Switch a Lightbulb?


Yes, robots are faster, more consistent and better performing than human workers, and are a possible threat to people’s job security. With the ongoing trend toward automation across industries, what’s to keep robots from flooding the job market in the near future?

According to research by McKinsey, approximately 51 percent of all job-related activities in the U.S. can be replaced by robots. Another recent research conducted by PwC shows that 40 percent of jobs in the U.S., 31 percent in the UK, 35 percent in Germany and 21 percent of the jobs in Tokyo are vulnerable to replacement by robotics or other artificial intelligence (AI).

 An image of an all-robot workforce wearing suits to resemble human workers

An imagined image of an all-robot workforce (Source: Digital News Asia)

The figures are daunting, but in practice, companies have yet to realize a fully-automated system that matches human labor. The truth is, humans need robots to take over mundane and physically demanding tasks, while people take on creative and innovative roles in the workplace. What is more likely is a shift in workplace dynamics, not a decrease in the overall number of jobs available. Today, most companies have automated their systems to varying degrees, and robots are continually being upgraded.

The Human-Robot Collaboration

Last year, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) published ISO/TS 15066, the safety standards for collaborative robots, or cobots that work in the same workplace as humans simultaneously. Before, it was common to find robots restrained in cages, or shut off while human workers loaded equipment onto the robots. Now, with enhanced sensors and diverse power settings, the safety risks of working with cobots are low. To add, many industries are embracing cobots over traditional industrial robots that work alone, because cobots are less expensive and require much less energy to operate.     

A welder gets help from a cobot as he pieces together metal

A welder gets help from a cobot

Not only are they a sustainable solution for companies, they increase workers’ productivity. According to Business World, Julie Shah and her team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology conducted a study looking at human-robot collaborations at a BMW plant. She found higher levels of productivity, efficiency and performance when humans and robots collaborate in comparison to all-human or all-robot systems. Collaboration also reduced human idle time by 85 percent. Many argue that this increase in productivity will lead to more business and eventually create more jobs that revolve around working with cobots.

The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) found that robot-driven productivity accounted for 10 percent of total GDP growth in OECD countries from 1993 to 2016, and that number will continue to grow in the coming years. The IFR predicts worldwide usage of industrial robots to reach 2.6 million by 2019. That’s one million more robots than in 2015.

Cobots are already making their way into factories and warehouses, and human workers are learning to work with their new counterparts.

Auto Industry

The automotive industry is one of the most common places to find cobots as major automakers were early movers in incorporating robotics into the workforce. That’s why it’s the perfect place to observe the changing dynamics of the workplace with cobots. At Ford’s new production facility, cobots work shoulder to shoulder with the production team in what they call a blended solution. Mostly, cobots have taken over repetitive tasks, physically demanding or dangerous tasks and freed up workers to focus on new innovations and creative projects. The facility runs 21 hours a day, 6 days a week thanks to around 550 cobots and robots.

Take a look at the new working dynamics at Ford below:

Food Industry

The food industry is another sector ripe for human-cobot collaboration, especially in the packaging sector. However, pizza restaurant Zume is changing the delivery pizza experience with automated technology. Cobots have taken over tasks such as spreading the sauce and lifting the pies into the oven. They will be implementing more robot technology to free up kitchen staff to work in their offices for business expansion. Another addition to come is a delivery truck equipped with 50 ovens that will start cooking the pizzas based on exactly calculated arrival times.

Watch the video below to find out more about what Zume is working on:

E-Commerce Industry   

Amazon is another early mover that introduced 15,000 cobots named Kiva to their warehouses in 2014. Two years prior in 2012, they bought Kiva Systems, a robotics company, for USD 775 million. Since then, the number of cobot employees has tripled.

Here’s how it works. Human employees scan items and place them into the shelf-like pods. Instantly, the scanned item is available to purchase online. Kiva’s software keeps track of where each item is so that it can easily be found at the picking station, where a human employee retrieves the product for shipping. Amazon managed to rapidly increase efficiency and speed up delivery times with Kiva. They continue to incorporate AI into their services, including their drone delivery system.

Take a look at Kiva in action in the video below:

Healthcare Industry

In the healthcare industry, cobots are being incorporated to assist doctors in surgery and lighten the burden of caregivers by taking over mundane tasks. Pairing cobots and their software technology with doctors has several benefits including minimized invasiveness, exactness and reduced mistakes in surgical procedures. To date, AI and cobots have allowed doctors to access new parts of the human body for surgery, and achieve breakthrough feats the way they examine, monitor and operate on patients.

Take a look at the most innovative cobots to date in the healthcare industry:

Steel Industry

POSCO is a leader in applying AI to the steel production systems. In 2015, they developed an exoskeleton cobot designed to enable workers strength beyond their own. The cobot is made of carbon fiber, aluminum and steel, and was first tested with Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering, at their facility in Okpo-dong. The cobot enabled shipyard workers to easily lift heavy pieces of metal weighing around 70 pounds, and researchers are working to allow workers to lift up to 200 pounds effortlessly.

Watch the video to find out more:

Aside from cobots, POSCO also incorporates AI and IoT into their smart factory, the first smart steel factory in the world, and continues to research and develop smart solutions to optimize the production processes.

Continued automation and the incorporation of cobots in the workplace is inevitable, and governments and institutions will have to provide resources for people to fill jobs tailored to working with cobots or those that cannot be replaced in any way by robots and AI. What’s ahead is figuring out how to think of cobots as coworkers that will only enhance one’s work. Also, companies have to figure out how to fully realize the potential for increased economic productivity through this type of cobot co-work that will lead to the development of more innovations, technology and ultimately, new business ventures.


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