By Gene Russell, Manex President & CEO

One of the major technological innovations to impact manufacturing within the past three decades has been the development and installation of robots. Industrial robots welded and painted in the 1970’s, and digital robots came along in the 2000’s. But they were big, fast and dangerous. Best caged and left alone. Programing was difficult and costs were very high unless the plant was high volume and high value (automotive).

One of the most promising new segments of robotics for everyone in manufacturing, particularly the small and midsized plant, is that of the collaborative robot or cobot. This is because of the safe interactive design of a cobot, it’s low cost and the plug and play nature. These cobots are seen as complimentary to the workforce, although we do see the ability to reduce workforce in certain areas – mainly repetitive and boring areas.

Where Did They Come From?

Cobots were designed for automotive and aerospace industries because their precision and speed mimicked humans. However, it was their human-like ability to adapt that has spread their use far and wide, from industrial plants to hospitals, farms, warehouses and beyond. Like all computerized devices costs continue to fall while power, user interface and overall simplicity rise. Expectations from Wall Street and from industry are high, including reports of the compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of more than 50% over the next decade. Because they are designed to interact with humans, we expect the service sector and the service side of manufacturing to be impacted by positive productivity gains and some relief from workforce shortages – except of course in those that can tend and program automation including cobots. However, the plug and play nature of a cobot means an easier learning curve for the technician than a standard robot. We expect cobots to be at the root of the Fourth Industrial Revolution or Manufacturing 4.0 and China’s Made in China 2025 Initiative. They are the single fastest growing segment in automation at this time. They will drive competitive advantage or disadvantage depending on where you stand on automation initiatives. It has been said that manufacturing will change in the next five years more than the past fifty years. The cobot is as we have said at the heart of those changes along with digital technology and connectivity. As a result, prices of cobots will decrease while their costs decline steadily year over year.

What Are Some of the Limitations of Cobots?

Like any tool, cobots strengths and use specializations are also its weak points. Because they are designed to be a coworker, they work at close to human speed for safety reasons. As a result, they also have a limited reach, payload, and an operator is still required to be nearby. Cybersecurity risks associated with any connected devices must be addressed in the whole Manufacturing 4.0 world including cobots, but that’s true of your new car as well.

Who Are the Makers?

The cobot market is currently led by KUKA, Universal Robots, Rethink Robotics, and Fanuc, but they are under increasing pressure from both their main competitors, which are based in Japan, South Korea, and China, as well as from new entrants. There are a number of specialty start-ups focused on one industry or vertical. Fanuc has a Northern California training center in Union City and Universal Robots has a Southern California office in Irvine. Manex has a working relationship with Universal Robots and we are working to expand into other suppliers.

What Are Manex’s Goals?

Our goals are to best serve our manufacturing client base within the Bay Area and Sacramento region by continuing to be a trusted advisor on any subject, including Manufacturing 4.0 and cobots. We know through experience that one of the first steps to automation is value-stream mapping and eliminating steps rather than automating unnecessary steps. Lean for automation will be crucial and laying out an automated plant will be unique due to the new tools of making. Reconciling the existing legacy equipment with the new plan is typical. A straight line, with a moving production belt will likely be unnecessary and give way to unique twists and turns. Working with software vendors and hardware companies for the best outcomes and training an existing and new workforce to work in the 4.0 world are areas that we can excel at for you. This evolutionary process within small and medium-sized manufacturers that we serve will be a very rewarding adventure for everyone involved.

About the Author

Gene Russell is President and CEO of Manex and has over 30 years of senior executive strategic planning, operational management, and consulting experience in the manufacturing and technology sectors. With his extensive knowledge of manufacturing operations, he has developed and implemented key strategic initiatives for companies, allowing them to improve performance and achieve profitable growth.  He can be reached at