Cobot sales soar amid worker shortages

March 2, 2022
Technology advances and lower costs also are fueling demand for collaborative robots.

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By Bruce Geiselman

Sales of collaborative robots are on the rise and show no signs of slowing.  

A labor shortage, fueled by the pandemic, is helping to drive strong sales. Technology advances and falling costs also are spurring interest. 

The global cobot market was valued at $475 million in 2020, was expected to hit $600 million in 2021 and will be worth $8 billion in 2030, according to a market report published in 2021 by ABI Research, a global technology intelligence firm. 

Cobots are used in many industrial applications where robots need to work safely near humans, including in plastics processing, where they typically tend machines and perform post-processing tasks. 

Universal Robots (UR) is a dominant player with 50 percent of total shipments, according to the ABI Resarch report 

In January, UR reported record annual revenue of $311 million, a 41 percent increase over 2020, and a 23 percent increase over pre-pandemic revenues in 2019. The company expects strong growth to continue in 2022. These numbers reflect total sales across all markets, not just plastics. 

Thursday Webinar: Cobots for Productivity in Plastics Manufacturing, sponsored by Universal Robots

A shortage of workers is the biggest reason for the surge, said Joe Campbell, senior manager of strategic marketing and application development at UR. 

“The biggest demand right now is being driven by a labor shortage,” Campbell said. “I’ve talked about it for three years now, and it’s not going away. In fact, it’s getting worse.”  

Manufacturers were already facing labor shortages when the pandemic made a bad situation worse. 

“We had a problem before COVID,” Campbell said. “Unfortunately, our generation, the baby boomer generation, is retiring at a very high rate of speed, roughly 10,000 a day, and 27 percent of the manufacturing workforce is 55 or older. The younger generations are just not interested. They don’t think about manufacturing as a career. They don’t like the work. They certainly don’t want anything that’s dull, dirty or dangerous, so it’s difficult to hire.” 

COVID has encouraged boomers in the manufacturing workforce to retire at an even faster rate.  

“You saw a lot of people retire early,” Campbell said, citing statistics from the Pew Research Center. “The estimates are that roughly an additional 3 million people retired out of the workforce due to COVID.” 

In January 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 480,000 open jobs in the manufacturing sector. By November 2021, that number increased to 858,000, Campbell said. 

While the unemployment rate initially rose to 14.7 percent by April 2020, by December 2021, it had dropped to 3.9 percent and is projected to drop further, Campbell said, citing figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

“Production managers are trapped because they don’t have enough manpower to meet their customer demands,” Campbell said. 

To cope, managers began working staff overtime. However, overtime pay hits the bottom line, and there is a point at which workers don’t want any more overtime. That has helped drive cobot sales. 

Cobots affordable, easier to learn and program

Cobots often are used to load and unload small injection molding machines. Larger machines may require other types of robots that can work with higher payloads and at faster speeds, but the downside is that they require fencing, light curtains or other safety equipment. 

Other common tasks for cobots include deflashing, sprue cutting, embossing, polishing and assembly. 

“The one trend that we’re seeing a lot is molders don’t just mold anymore,” Campbell said. “Their customers are asking for secondary processes. So, I want you to mold three parts, but now I want you to assemble them for me. We’re seeing more assembly, packaging and palletizing because that’s what the customers are demanding of the molders.” 

UR also had customers who reworked their manufacturing floors and changed their operations during the pandemic to better separate workers. Customers bought additional cobots to take over some of the menial tasks from workers to create more space on the manufacturing floor. 

Cobots are less expensive to install than traditional industrial robots, Campbell said.  

“If you’re going to install a traditional robot or traditional automation, you’re running a 440 [volt] bus line, which is very expensive,” Campbell said. “You’re doing drops and disconnects, which are very expensive. You have to bring high power to the cell. Ours is 120 volts. Just find an outlet and plug it in. That’s a significant savings.” 

Typically, training also is less expensive.  

“All of our entry-level training is offered online at no charge,” Campbell said. “In about two hours, you can learn the fundamentals of programming and operating our robot. Contrast that with the traditional automation supplier, where training means you have to go to their headquarters for one or two weeks.” 

To simplify deployment and keep down the costs of end-of-arm tooling and software for different applications, UR also maintains its UR+ ecosystem, which Campbell describes as an app store for UR cobots. 

“There are over 350 products that have been engineered and designed to work with our robots,” he said. “It’s not just hardware, but software. When the manufacturer thinks they’re done, they submit [their product] to Universal, and we test it and validate it. If we certify a product as UR+, it works.” 

Low installation costs allow even small companies to automate, Campbell said. It is common now to see complete systems for machine tending, welding and palletizing deployed for less than $100,000 and often less than $85,000, he said. 

As technology improves, cobots become more appealing because they can be used for more applications. 

“Everybody’s always on the hunt for more payload and more speed and more reach,” Campbell said. “It would be safe to say you’ll see product lines continuing to expand. I think you’re also going to see faster development of application kits to solve very specific problems.” 

Campbell pointed to UR’s release last year of an enhanced UR10e cobot with a 25 percent heavier payload of 27.6 pounds. Using a 5.5-pound gripper, the UR10e can palletize cartons weighing up to 22 pounds. It also can unload heavier parts from molds, and package heavier parts. The company in 2020 introduced its ActiNav Autonomous Bin Picking system, which includes software and vision equipment that allow a cobot to identify and pick up randomly oriented parts and load them into a machine. 

Robots with benefits  

Dean Elkins, segment leader for materials handling at Yaskawa Motoman, agrees that cobots are helping companies cope with the labor shortage.  

“Cobots are filling that need as steel collar workers, if you will,” Elkins said. “Cobots are just, for lack of a better term, they are commercially on fire right now. When you go to trade shows, and it doesn’t matter what industry it is, if it’s plastics or wood or automotive or consumer products, cobots are everywhere.” 

Advantages include the ability to work side-by-side with humans without adding workflow-inhibiting safety equipment, he said. 

“One of the definitions [of a cobot] has to do with the power- and force-limiting circuitry, so if it hits an object, it stops and backs off. The second of those definitions is the incorporation of what we would call a safety monitored stop. So, that means if somebody enters the robot’s operating zone, which is being monitored by a sensor, like a floor scanner, the robot will safely stop, and there will be monitoring for that safe stop until the person is sensed as leaving that area.” 

A third typical feature is speed and separation monitoring. That means as a worker approaches the cobot’s work zones, it will slow down and then automatically speed up as the worker moves away. 

A hand-guided teaching mode allows operators to move the cobot arm to teach it the movements it needs to make, and then press a button to store the information. 

Cobots also are more flexible than industrial robots, which typically are installed in fixed positions.  

“Another cool thing about cobots, especially our 10-kilogram machine, is that they can be very portable,” Elkins said. “Quite often a manufacturer or a user of robot will put the robot on a manual cart and move it from operation to operation based on demand. So, if you have a situation, for example, where you have a production spike, and you’re having a hard time filling your floor with operators today, because we all know there’s a labor shortage, the cobot can be wheeled in and really augment that operation. And it’s easily taught through that hand-guided teaching. With an industrial robot, you can’t move easily from location to location.” 

Exploring new work frontiers 

Tim Paton, operations manager for general industry and electronics at ABB Robotics, reports that customers are buying more cobots, and for new uses. 

“Absolutely, there’s an increase in demand, and what I’m seeing is the increase in applications that people are trying to automate,” Paton said. 

Advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) allow cobots to perform functions previously thought impossible, he said. 

“There’s a lot of AI functionality that exists now,” Paton said. “Cameras and 3D sensors are getting much better, and we’re combining some of these technologies together to give you a solution that just wasn’t possible before.” 

One of the most popular new applications is bin picking, he said. No longer do people have to sort and orient parts for post-processing or kitting. 

“You now have cameras that can identify and see the parts much easier, and you have AI that is able to interpret what you’re looking at,” Paton said. “So, the cameras and the software and the robots all have additional software in there that allows it to identify the parts and what the orientation is. And then you have the cobot that’s able to use that technology and information and put the equipment in the right spot.” 

Bruce Geiselman, senior staff reporter

[email protected]


ABB Robotics, Auburn Hills, Mich., 248-391-9000, 

Universal Robots USA Inc., Boston, 844-462-6268, 

Yaskawa America Inc., Motoman Robotics Division, Miamisburg, Ohio, 937-847-6200, 

About the Author

Bruce Geiselman | Senior Staff Reporter

Senior Staff Reporter Bruce Geiselman covers extrusion, blow molding, additive manufacturing, automation and end markets including automotive and packaging. He also writes features, including In Other Words and Problem Solved, for Plastics Machinery & Manufacturing, Plastics Recycling and The Journal of Blow Molding. He has extensive experience in daily and magazine journalism.