On the blog this week, we mentioned cobots – one of the technologies transforming the food and beverage industry. But cobots have a story to tell; although they’re only now becoming a topic of conversation for most people in most industries, the concept of the cobot has been around for a while.
In case you didn’t read the blog, a cobot is a robot designed for direct human-and-robot collaboration, with robots and humans working together in a shared space.
The first cobot was invented in 1996 – by professors J. Edward Colgate and Michael Peshkin, at America’s Northwestern University. They called them ‘programmable constraint machines’, because they were built with the capability to create a constraint surface so a human collaborator could work safely with the robot.
The term cobot was then coined by Brent Gillespie, another researcher at Northwestern. In 2000, the Wall Street Journal selected cobot as one of the ‘words of tomorrow’.
The invention was patented in 1997. The US patent outlines the invention like this:
“An apparatus and method for direct physical interaction between a person and a computer controlled manipulator.”
We love these photos of early cobot builds – with their simple robotic architecture and minimal, functional control modes.
Cobots were developed because of a General Motors initiative. The company wanted to implement robotics in the automotive industry, and they wanted to find a way to enable robots to collaborate with human workers.
But those first cobots didn’t have an internal motor power source. They were more like a middle-man; enabling computerised motion control by guiding a payload with the help of a human worker. As the technology developed, later generations of cobots were built with motor power – and in 2004, German robotics company KUKA released the first light cobot equipped with its own motor power supply.
Then cobots began to support workers in other industries…
In 2008, a Danish company called Universal Robot launched a robot that could work safely alongside a human workforce, without the need for barriers between them. This was the beginning of a new robotic realm – with flexible collaborative robots that are affordable, easy to operate, and can be leveraged by small and medium enterprises as well as large-scale manufacturing firms.
The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) is a non-profit that aims to promote and protect the robotics industry around the world.
The IFR has defined the ways in which cobots can be used in collaborative production:
1. Reactive collaboration – the robot responds to the movement of the human work in real time.
2. Cooperation – human and robot are both in motion, and both work at the same time.
3. Sequential collaboration – robot and human share all or part of a workspace, but they don’t work at the same time.
In the food industry specifically, there are numerous applications for cobots – and more and more companies are integrating them into their operations.
Increasingly, cobots are thought to improve employee happiness – with Gen Z workers particularly open to experimenting with robot collaboration as a way to create a more fulfilling, more creative, and less repetitive work environment.
And as robotics tech develops, and more systems utilise the power of AI and machine learning, the potential for human-robot collaborations is growing.
Do you use cobots in your F&B business? We’d love to hear your experiences.
Catch you next week,
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