How cobots are revolutionising furniture production
What role do robots currently play in furniture manufacturing?
In general, a distinction is made between fully automated and hybrid systems, i.e. those in which humans work alongside machines. The latter, collaborative robots or cobots, have been helping to assemble or screw together furniture for a few years now. They take on tasks that are difficult for people to do at the same speed or would be ergonomically challenging, and they also help their human colleagues with repetitive, tiring processes. Unlike larger machines that run independently in a factory without human guidance, cobots can be integrated into the workflow alongside people.
Cobots – an advantage for small companies, too
When people imagine industrial robots, they often think of large, extremely heavy machines. However, collaborative robots slot into the manufacturing process and sometimes even take up less space than their human predecessors. What’s more, some modern models weigh only 20 to 30 kg. This lightweight design keeps costs down and inertia low, allowing for flexibility in terms of where the robot is positioned in the production area.
How much do cobots cost to buy? Depending on the type of cobot, prices start at around Euro 15,000. So, rather than being the sole preserve of the big players, they’re actually a realistic upgrade option for small and medium-sized companies. User-friendly programming means that a robotic assistant can take over a variety of tasks to meet individual requirements and automate them with great flexibility. Typical areas of application for cobots in furniture manufacturing include:
- Assembly: Screwing, joining together and welding parts – assembling furniture is one of the main areas where collaborative robots are used. Machines of this type are available from manufacturers such as Denso, Kawasaki Robotics and Fanuc.
- Material handling: Lifting heavy loads, packaging finished products or bin picking – these tasks are monotonous and relatively easy to automate. Machines that can streamline this process step significantly and make it more efficient are available from companies including Universal Robots and Digital2Go.
- Dispensing/finishing: Core tasks in furniture manufacturing – including gluing, painting and sealing surfaces – can be performed quickly and precisely by robotic arms, which also lowers the cost of the work. Cobots of this type are sold by Universal Robots and JAKA, for example
Before you buy, make sure your information is up-to-date. Japan is said to be the biggest manufacturer of industrial robots, and innovations are most commonly revealed at iREX, which claims to be the world’s largest trade fair for industrial robots. In Europe, the Warsaw Industry Automatica is one of the best sources of information about innovations in the robotics industry.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of cobots?
Cobots can benefit the whole manufacturing process. In theory, they work non-stop, can perform operations very precisely over and over again and take up little space. Innovative cobots are also extremely fast – one such example being the M1 Pro from the manufacturer Dobot. It was one of the highlights of this year’s iREX because the fast rotation speed of its axes allows it to deliver clear, quantifiable time savings in production.
Cobots not only streamline the furniture manufacturing process, but the product itself can also be produced more cheaply thanks to more economical use of materials and greater precision in production. Safety considerations also play a major role: by using robots, people are protected from chemicals, heavy loads and processes where there is a risk of accidents.
The process of installing and configuring cobots is generally very user-friendly and carried out by experts in just a few steps. (Photo: Natalia Dziubek, Unsplash)
Limits of the robotics industry: do we still need human workers?
Anything that can be automated can be done by a robot. Screwing, painting, packing – the diverse ways in which cobots can be used would indicate that the number of programmers employed directly in factories will increase, while the number of manual workers will decrease. So, will “handcrafted” products soon be a thing of the past?
Like many people working in the creative professions today, furniture manufacturers and designers must find a way to maintain diversity and keep sustainability in focus even when products are made entirely by machine. After all, just because a piece of furniture can be produced economically and quickly, that doesn’t mean it should be replaceable at the drop of a hat. The use of sustainable materials and designs is something worth striving for here, too – even if doing so reduces the net cost savings. And the creative process is also up against the challenge of keeping the craft alive and constantly reimagining existing concepts despite automation.
While these developments make it unlikely that the number of human workers will be maintained or increased in the future, their specialist skills in digitalisation and automation will be vital.
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