The term cobot describes collaborative robots; the robots’ cousins built for safe human-robot interaction. In contrast to industrial robots which are isolated from human contact, cobots are made from lightweight materials, with soft edges, gentle movements and equipped with many sensors to avoid collisions. As such they’re perfectly suitable to work alongside humans as “co-workers” without fences or plexiglass barriers. And cobots often receive instructions, or “marching orders”(no pun intended), from a stack of applications with which they are interconnected.
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From robots to cobots
In the early 1950s, George C. Devol, an inventor from Louisville, KY, invented and patented a reprogrammable manipulator called “Unimate” (short for “Universal Automation”) which is widely accepted as the first modern robot. Although Devol tried his best to sell his futuristic product to the industry, there was zero interest until 20 years later. In the late 1960s, businessman and engineer Joseph Engleberger acquired the Unimate patent, modified it and founded the company “Unimation” to manufacture and market the Unimate robots. Robot historians have since celebrated Engleberger as the “Father of Robotics.”[i]
Fast forward to the late 1990s, when General Motors sponsored an initiative to find a way to make robots safe enough to team with people. A 1997 patent entitled “Cobots” describes “an apparatus and method for direct physical interaction between a person and general purpose manipulator controlled by a computer.”[ii]
Interconnection as the enabler of robot evolution
Devices are classified as robots if they provide some level of industrial automation of a repetitive task. Humans pre-program robots for those tasks, and the machines will work without human contact in a space that is fenced off to keep human workers out of harm’s way. While interconnection may be needed in some types of robotics applications, such as with instructing robots on what to do, however, it is not always necessary.
Besides electronic and mechanical progress, it is interconnection that has made the evolution of robots into cobots possible through bi-directional learning. Interconnection provides the low-latency, secure connectivity needed for cobots to receive instructions and improved situational knowledge from various data sources, including databases and analytics engines, as well as artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms hosted in the cloud or a data center.
Collaborative robots, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…
Popular culture is rife with cobot samples! We all know: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…there were R2D2 and C-3PO”. Cobots in movies mostly serve as close companions that can assist humans with various tasks. C-3PO is fluent in over 6 million forms of communication. It is fair to say that R2D2 on the other hand, has quite limited communication skills but is adept in recording and storing video messages, repairing electronics, hacking into foreign computer systems and can miraculously pop whatever is needed out of its secret compartments.
4 levels of cobot interaction
There are four defined levels of cobot-human cooperation:
- Coexistence: working alongside each other without barrier, but not necessarily in the same workspace or on the same object (e.g., human and cobot are working on the same automobile assembly chain, but not simultaneously on the same vehicle).
- Sequential collaboration: working in a shared workspace but performing sequential motions.
- Cooperation: working side by side on the same object at the same time.
- Responsive: the cobot responds in real-time to the movement of the human worker.
Today, the vast majority of cobots coexist with human workers or execute sequential tasks.
“Cobotic” action in Amazon fulfillment centers
A great real-life cobot example is Amazon’s Kiva cobot. Besides factory floors, cobots are often found in warehouses. Amazon acquired Kiva Systems, the innovator now known as Amazon Robotics, in March 2012. Many have predicted that fully automated warehouses would be entirely devoid of human workers; however, on the contrary, collaborative robots are believed to be the key to future human productivity and job growth. This seems plausible when looking at Amazon which had just under 90,000 employees before going all-in on robotics in 2012. Today it employs over one million full-time workers, reportedly having hired 500,000 employees across its diverse businesses in 2020 alone.[iv]
Source: Boston Globe[v]
An Amazon fulfillment center employee “picking” items from a shelving pod that was brought to the picking station by a Kiva cobot.
In the warehouses and fulfillment centers, human “pickers” and Kiva robots diligently collaborate to prepare the many shipments. From a metrics perspective, Kiva cobots have increased the Amazon pickers’ productivity from around 100 items per hour to approximately 300-400 items per hour.[vi]
How interconnection powers cobots in Amazon fulfillment centers
Regardless of where cobots share the floor with humans, low latency interconnection with supporting and enabling applications and business partners is key. For example, the Amazon Fulfillment Technologies (AFT) team builds and maintains the company’s Warehouse Management Systems. Among these are Inventory Management Services (IMS), which facilitate warehouse processes, including inbound and outbound shipments, item picking, sorting, packaging, and inventory storage. IMS uses advanced machine learning technologies for forecasting, text comprehension, image recognition, translation and speech recognition.
Another system in the cloud, comparable to air traffic control, coordinates the route of every cobot across the floor to prevent interference with machines on other routes. Amazon’s vast Aurora fulfillment database also resides in the AWS cloud. It leverages big data analytics to understand customer behavior and steer their behavior via the recommendation engine. Furthermore, Amazon is interconnected with its manufacturers and tracks their inventory to ensure orders can be fulfilled quickly. It is a finely tuned process from the moment someone browses the eCommerce platform to the package’s speedy arrival at the customer’s doorstep. Interconnection is the fabric that weaves it all together, and facilitates the flow of data that, amongst other things, orchestrates the Kiva cobots’ movements across the warehouse.
Vendor-neutral interconnection solutions such as those on Platform Equinix® can network together IoT devices such as cobots and the applications and data that directs their actions. A sophisticated deployment like the one discussed in this blog relies on data points from multiple applications – databases, analytics engines and management platforms.
Equinix is the world’s digital infrastructure company, enabling a distributed IT infrastructure capable of removing the distance between cobots and the cloud ecosystems that house the apps, data and core algorithms with which they interact. Platform Equinix interconnects industry-leading organizations across all industries in a cloud-first world, providing the reach needed to privately connect to digital ecosystems for low-latency, secure exchange of data.
To learn more, check out the IOT Playbook.