How “Cobots” Saw 33% Rapid Growth in Market Size in One Year
At a cafe in Seongsu-dong, Seoul, a robot barista with a cantilever shape adjusts the temperature and amount of water to match the beans and brews hand-drip coffee. One of the robot's daily tasks is to draw art into coffee with dripping syrup. But robots are not the only ones in the cafe. There are more than 10 employees present devoted to recommending coffee beans and making bakery items for customers.
Even at the Jecheon plant in North Chungcheong Province of Park Won, a producer of ultra-precision steel balls used for automobile parts, a robot arm is busily moving next to its employees. Due to the nature of steel ball production, there are many simple and repetitive tasks that require a lot of force, from weighing to packaging, all of which the little robot does.
'Collaborative robots (cobots)' are robots that work together alongside humans in one workspace are rapidly spreading throughout various industries. Cobots, which appeared around 2010 to improve work efficiency and reduce accidents, have been steadily used in industrial fields, but the adoption rate is rapidly increasing due to the corona crisis. This is because the number of businesses experiencing a workforce shortage increased significantly as the number of confirmed corona patients increased. According to market research firm Statista, the size of the global cobot market, which was $475 million (about 570 billion won) in 2020, surged 33% in one year to $630 million (about 756 billion won) last year. The cobot market is expected to grow 33% this year and exceed the KRW 1 trillion mark.
Cobots that work with humans are different from industrial robots. Cobots are different from traditional industrial robots that move in spaces where human access is prohibited because they are colleagues who work together at a close distance to humans. In general, industrial robots move at extremely high speeds and perform tasks that humans cannot do, such as lifting and moving huge objects weighing hundreds to thousands of kilograms or working in ultra-high and cryogenic conditions. On the other hand, cobots can do human work. With simple repetitive tasks, efficiency can be low with a human workforce and working for an extended period may put a strain on the human body. Since they do not perform superhuman roles like industrial robots, cobots average only 1 to 2 meters in length, and their movements and shapes are like those of a human arm. The maximum weight a cobot can lift is usually less than 20 kg. It also moves in such a way that it does not pose a threat to safety. It recognizes its surroundings through sensors such as images and ultrasound and is designed to stop immediately in a dangerous situation (much like car sensors).
One of the advantages of cobots is that they are easy to install and use. It takes an average of less than two to three hours to install a cobot and set up a simple task. There are products that move the cobot's arm as desired and press the 'Information' button, and the cobot will memorize the movements in sequence and then follow them. It can be easily controlled through a tablet PC-shaped device or a smartphone app. Although the price varies depending on the function and size, it is much cheaper than industrial robots at an average of 20 to 30 million won, and recently, low-priced products under 10 million won are also increasing, from China. Professor Song Jae-Bok of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Korea University, who developed the first cobot in Korea, said, “Chinese cobot companies have mass-produced ultra-low-priced products for many years with government support, and the technology level has risen quite a bit.”
A chicken cooking cobot introduced by convenience store GS25 in partnership with food tech startup Roboarte. Photo provided by GS Retail.
The applicable fields are endless. The cobot can be used for multiple purposes by swapping the hand (end effector) at the end of the arm. You can lift the glass plate by using two-finger tongs to move parts or objects, and then replace it with a vacuum suction plate. It can be transformed into various functions such as cooking, beauty, experimentation, and painting. In the automobile industry, the role of cobots is rapidly increasing in recent years. Automobile manufacturing has been highly automated over the past few decades, but some tasks, such as assembling parts and screws, still depend on manual labor. Cobots are infiltrating this area. “The small footprint of the cobot makes it easy to add to an existing automotive production line, performing various detailed tasks next to a human,” said Jacob Bomb Madsen, software manager at Universal Robots (UR), Denmark, the world's largest cobot company. When Hyundai Motors produced the electric vehicle 'IONIQ 5' released last year, it entrusted the assembly of battery packs to cobots, and Volkswagen of Germany also put 1,700 cobots into the body assembly line of the Zwickau plant, which produces electric vehicles.
There are also studies that show that the combination of ‘human + robot’ is more productive than full automation. Researchers at MIT in the United States found that the introduction of one-armed cobots to the BMW production line at an automobile manufacturer increased productivity by 85% compared to a human or robot working alone.
Robot companies entering the cobot market
The No. 1 company in the cobot field is Universal Robots from Denmark, which first commercialized cobots in 2009, with a market share of over 50%. More than 1,100 companies around the world use Universal Robots products. The company's sales last year reached $311 million (about 372.5 billion won). Sales increased 42% year-over-year as demand for cobots increased after the pandemic. As the cobot market grew, the leaders of existing industrial robots, such as ABB of Switzerland, Fanuc of Japan, and Kuka of Germany, also entered this market five to six years ago. Germany's Franca Emica, Britain's Automata, and China's Dobot are rapidly increasing their market share by launching low-cost cobots priced between $50 and $10,000.
In Korea, Doosan and Hanwha were the first to enter the cobot market. Doosan Robotics, established in 2015, developed eight cobot models over two years, and Hanwha Precision Machinery launched its first product (HCR-5) in 2017. Hyundai Heavy Industries Group, which established Hyundai Robotics in 2019, launched a cobot that combines AI (Artificial Intelligence) voice recognition and intelligent image analysis technology together with KT. However, none of them have produced any significant results yet.
Experts surmise, that although domestic companies (in Korea) do not lag behind European and Japanese companies in terms of technology, there is much to be gained from the sharing of information. Professor Gong Jae-seong of the Department of Robotics and Electronics at Korea Polytechnic University said, “In the case of Universal Robots, tens of thousands of cobots have been applied to the field for over 10 years, and the product has been continuously improved by receiving numerous feedbacks. It is also a strength of global companies that a community where they can share is activated.”
Source: Kim Ji-seop and Kim Se-rin of The Chosun Ilbo (February 24, 2022)