Intelligent robots capable of learning simple tasks in order to work as assistants alongside people are set to upend the world of industrial robotics by putting automation within reach of many small and medium-sized companies for the first time.
Collaborative robots, or ‘cobots’, tend to be inexpensive, easy to use and safe to be around. They can easily be adapted to new tasks, making them well suited to small-batch manufacturing and ever-shortening product cycles.
Cobots can typically lift loads of up 10kg and be small enough to put on top of a workbench. They can help with repetitive tasks like picking and placing, packaging or gluing and welding.
Some can repeat a task after being guided once through the process by a worker and recording it. The price of a cobot can be as little as £7,000, although typically they cost two to three times that.
The global cobot market is set to grow from £84m last year to £8.3bn by 2025, capital goods analysts at Barclays estimate. That would be roughly equal to the size of the entire industrial robotics market today.
"By 2020 it will be a game-changer," said Stefan Lampa, head of robotics of Germany's Kuka, which manufactures robotics.
But growth in industrial robot unit sales have slowed to 12 per cent last year from 29 per cent in 2014, partly due to lower purchase orders from top buyer China.
Still, the market leader in the sector, Denmark's Universal Robots which was founded by Esben Ostergaard, was buoyant about its prospects.
"We are approximately doubling every year, in terms of units,” he said. “That's our ambition and we have almost hit our ambition every year for six straight years."
The start-up company sold its first cobot in 2009 and was acquired by US automatic test equipment maker Teradyne for $285m (£207m) last year.
Ostergaard and his co-founders were already working on robotics at university together when the Danish ministry of food launched an initiative to get more robots into the Danish food industry to be more competitive.
They realised that existing robots were not suitable for the industry's frequent seasonal product changes.
"They could not readjust the robots. The whole machine weighed 500 kg. It was very expensive. And most of all it was impossible to teach them how to programme it," Ostergaard said.
US competitor Rethink Robotics announced this week that logistics giant DHL had ordered several of its Baxter and Sawyer smart cobots for testing in its warehouses on tasks such as packing and assembly.
These smaller, leaner companies typically do not rely on the expensive maintenance contracts that earn fat margins for more established players - partly because the cobots tend to be simple and pay back their costs within months.
"I've heard it's a big potential we are missing - it's apparently a way the big brands make their money," said Ostergaard. "We just want to sell robots."
The rapid increase in the number of robots taking on previously human roles has led the EU to consider a draft plan that could see robot workers in the continent classed as ‘electronic persons’, with their owners liable to pay social security for them.
However, even if the proposals are eventually written into legislation, their impact in the UK may be negligible considering the country’s decision to leave the EU.
Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.