When small and mid-sized medical device manufacturers envision a robot, many think of either huge industrial robots working in fenced-off areas in large factories or futuristic cyberbots mimicking human behavior. But between these two scenarios lies a new emerging reality: A class of robots dubbed collaborative robots — or simply cobots — are bridging the gap between fully manual assembly and fully automated manufacturing lines. This new technology is filling automation gaps for larger manufacturers that have processes that couldn't be cost-effectively automated in the past and is bringing the advantages of automation within reach for even small, specialty manufacturers.

What Makes Cobots Different from Traditional Automation?

At Dynamic Group, a UR cobot tends a complete injection molding machine cycle for a medical device with extremely heat-sensitive components: it picks and places “book frames” that hold pieces to be molded into the injection molding machine, transports the units to a trimming fixture, places the part in front of an operator for further handling, and finally pushes a button to activate the cycle again. (Credit: Universal Robots)

Unlike their big brothers working inside safety fencing at automobile plants and other large assembly lines, collaborative robots are lightweight and flexible, so they can be easily moved and reprogrammed to solve new tasks. That helps them meet the short-run production challenges faced by medical device manufacturers that are adjusting to advanced processing in smaller batch sizes. Once a risk assessment is completed, the robots’ built-in safety technology allows them to work alongside employees without safety fencing, which dramatically reduces costs and space requirements. This collaborative work environment — which includes easy programming, flexible deployment, safe implementation, and affordability/return on investment — is what defines these robots.

Lightweight, Flexible, and Redeployable. Cobots weigh less than a typical toddler and have a mounting footprint about the size of a paperback book. That allows them to be installed on a standard workbench, a rolling cart, or even hung from the ceiling in space-constrained environments. It also means they can be easily moved and redeployed for new processes, changing product lines, or different shifts without having to change production layout. Cobots even plug into a standard electrical outlet, so they don't require additional facilities changes.

A collaborative robot provides a mobile workforce that can easily be moved between tasks. (Credit: Universal Robots)

Easy Integration and Programming. Traditional industrial robots require extensive expertise to install, integrate, and program. For most small or mid-size manufacturers, that means hiring an outside integrator because few have robotics experts in house. In contrast, cobots are typically deployed with no previous robotics experience in less than an hour. That's the time it takes to unpack the robot, mount it, and teach it the first simple task using the touchscreen user interface or by simply moving the robot arm through the desired movements. Programs can be saved to make repetitive redeployments even easier.

At Nichrominox, the cobots were programmed by an in-house employee, Cedric Lefrancq-lumiere. (Credit: Universal Robots)

Integration of the robot into a work environment also requires end-of-arm tooling such as a gripper, polishing disk, screwdriver, etc. With the increasing popularity of collaborative robots, the market for tooling as well as software and accessories such as cameras, sensors, and protective covers has exploded. Many of these tools and accessories are now being precertified to work with specific cobots, making integration even simpler.

Safety First. Safety is a hot-button issue and the major thrust of research and development in robotics labs. With human collaboration in mind, cobots incorporate lightweight materials, rounded joints, back-drivable motors, and innovative force-sensing technology that automatically stops the robot if it encounters obstacles (or people) in its path. These safety features solve many automation headaches by allowing cobots to be implemented in work cells that can't accommodate safety guarding or where the task requires ongoing human-robot interaction.

When designing for safe human-robot collaboration, a risk assessment of the entire application must always be conducted. There are two things to consider: the robot itself and the application. The collaborative robot should be certified by third parties to meet current cobot safety standards. The second thing to consider is the application and any inherent safety hazards related to the object being moved or the tooling required at the end of the robot arm. For example, a cobot picking up a part with sharp edges or using a sharp tool and moving it quickly near human workers could still present risks.

With the introduction of ISO/TS 15066, manufacturers now have a guideline for acceptable force for different parts of the body, so they can adjust the cobot's safety settings to be appropriate for the specific application. Look for configurable safety settings to define limits for force, power, speed and momentum so the robot can work safely on an application-defined basis.

Low Up-Front Costs and Fast Return on Investment (ROI). According to the old rule of thumb, the cost of a robot should be equivalent to one worker's two-year salary. But collaborative robots are closer to one-fourth that price. The capital costs for traditional robots accounts for only 25–30 percent of the total system costs. The remaining costs are associated with robot programming, setup, and dedicated, shielded work cells — costs that are generally not needed with cobots. With affordable up-front costs for a cobot, small and mid-sized manufacturers typically see ROI in less than a year — sometimes significantly faster.

Dynamic Group Quadruples Productivity for Medical Device Manufacturing

Dynamic Group is a privately owned, Minnesota-based contract manufacturer that specializes in complex injection molded plastic components and assemblies for the medical and electronics industries. With the challenge of low unemployment and high wages, the company looked to automation to improve its competitiveness. A cobot tends a complete injection molding machine cycle for a medical device with extremely heat-sensitive components: it picks and places “book frames” that hold pieces to be molded into the injection molding machine, transports the units to a trimming fixture, places the part in front of an operator for further handling, and finally pushes a button to activate the cycle again.

CEO Joe McGillivray says, “We were having trouble making one good part with manual labor, let alone the various shifts tending the machine cycle differently. Universal Robots’ UR10 robot arm gave us a perfectly consistent cycle. We went from having three operators on a single shift to being able to run three shifts per day with just one operator per shift. So, we essentially quadrupled our production capacity and our scrap went from significantly high to near zero.”

With human collaboration in mind, cobots incorporate lightweight materials, rounded joints, back-drivable motors, and innovative force-sensing technology that automatically stops the robot if it encounters obstacles (or people) in its path. (Credit: Universal Robots)

Dynamic Group deployed two additional cobots to transport delicate parts to degating and human inspection and for a kitting application that picks and places sterile wipes and saline solution into a clam shell container and pushes the loaded shell onto a conveyor — a task that previously required six to seven employees. “It was fast paced and very high volume. It wasn't sustainable. Now we're able to run it with as little as two people,” says McGillivray. “Having this type of success out of the gate as firsttime rookies at this stuff has been phenomenal and totally unexpected. Our return on investment was less than two months, and we can even go further because we're able to adapt the robots to other products so quickly.”

Tegra Medical Doubles Production Without Process Change Validation

Massachusetts-based medical contract manufacturer Tegra Medical produces components and assemblies for leading-edge surgical and interventional companies. The company faced profit erosion from increased costs and customer demands and turned to collaborative robots to tend machines manufacturing medical instruments. Tegra Medical was able to double throughput and free 11 full-time positions from repetitive manual work to higher-value tasks. The cobot is deployed in a unique mixed-model cell in which it picks up blanks from three different hoppers, feeds two of them into two grinders while the third product goes into a lathe where an internal cutting tool creates a bevel edge on the end of a meniscal repair device.

At Tegra Medical, the UR cobot is deployed in a unique mixed-model cell in which it picks up blanks from three different hoppers, feeds two of them into two grinders while the third product goes into a lathe where an internal cutting tool creates a bevel edge on the end of a meniscal repair device. (Credit: Universal Robots)

Hal Blenkhorn, Tegra's director of engineering, explains, “Being in the medical industry, we were up against process change controls. We can't be changing our process without notifying our customers and going through validation activity. But by simply replacing the operator with the robot, we essentially didn't change the process. We just changed the handling of components in-between the processes. That was a huge win for us. We can offer our customers the price reductions that go with that, we can keep up with production demand, and we're not burdening anyone with additional qualifications and validation activities.”

Blenkhorn calls its three cobot cells a great financial success, saying, “We're seeing on average between three and six months ROI with these cells. Typically, when we go into projects, we're anticipating around a one-and-a-half to two-year return on investment, so we've been extremely pleased with the implementation of these new collaborative robots.”

Dental Instrument Manufacturer Nichrominox Sees 10 Percent Production Boost

Nichrominox, a family-owned company in Lyon, France, has manufactured sterilization equipment for dentists for 40 years and faces growing competition from countries with low labor costs. The company sought to automate a metal-folding application with traditional industrial robots, but soon realized that they did not have the necessary in-house resources to implement this and that the project cost was too high.

Nichrominox now uses four collaborative robots on three separate production lines to automate a bending cell, feed a CNC machine, and assemble products alongside an operator. One cobot performs a punching operation on one press then turns components on a shuttle table and performs a bending operation on a second press. A second cobot is fully integrated with the CNC machining center, saving time, improving the work quality, and reducing the risk of repetitive strain injuries. In the third line, an assembly station is run by an operator and a cobot working side-by-side in full collaboration without the need for any additional safety guarding. The operator activates the cobot by applying pressure (through an integrated force sensor in the gripper), which makes the robot easy to manage.

The cobots were programmed by an in-house employee, Cédric Lefrancq-lumiere. “I did not have any programming knowledge but after only two days of training I was able to understand and program the robot. Today I only need one or two hours to program a new task and I'm constantly improving the program to achieve better quality and precision,” he says. Nichrominox saw an ROI on the robots in 14 months and intends to keep transforming its production lines with additional cobots.

Cobots Bridge the Automation Gap for Medical Manufacturers

Collaborative robots or “cobots” are a new class of robots that are bridging the gap between fully manual assembly and fully automated manufacturing lines. This has become a critical competitive advantage for small and mid-sized specialty medical device manufacturers. Key benefits include flexible deployment, safe operation alongside human workers, easy programming and implementation, and fast return on investment.

This article was written by Brian Dillman, Area Sales Manager, Universal Robots, Odense, Denmark. For more information, visit here .