Challenges when introducing collaborative robots in SME manufacturing industry
Sammanfattning: Collaborative robots, cobots, are seen as an alternative to traditional industrial robots since they are more flexible, less space-consuming, and can share the workspace with human operators. For small and medium-sized enterprises, SMEs, the adoption still is in an early stage. This study aims to examine the challenges for manufacturing SMEs when introducing collaborative robots in the business. A literature review is conducted as well as a case study, where managers and operators from five Swedish companies are interviewed about their experiences regarding the introduction of collaborative robots. Additional interviews with international researchers in the field are conducted as well. Since the aim is to understand the challenges in a rather new field, which human-robot collaboration still is for SMEs, this is a qualitative explorative study, with the purpose to gather rich insight about the field. The data has been analyzed in an inductive qualitative analysis. The results show that the biggest challenges for manufacturing SMEs when introducing collaborative robots are related to safety, performance, strategy, involvement, and training. Safety aspects are crucial since human operators work closely with collaborative robots and risk serious injuries even though the managers and operators in the case study do not seem to worry since they perceive the robots as quite slow and safe. Proper safety assessments are important as well, even though there is a concern about the lack of proper safety regulations. Other challenges are related to performance and strategy, e.g how to achieve cost-effectiveness with small production volumes and get the robotic investment to pay off in the long turn, but also to choose a proper cobot solution and a reliable supplier, find suitable work tasks, and obtain quality if the cobot fails to recognize a defective product or skewed inputs on the production line. The recommendation from the companies in the case study is to start with an easy task and to see it as a long-term investment. One important key to success is to find a flexible cobot solution that suits the company's individual needs. Employee involvement is another success factor since involving the operators from the beginning leads to better acceptance and understanding of the new technology and the changed work situation. There is a need for skilled, educated workers as well, although the case study shows that the SMEs highlight the importance of choosing a robot system that is easy to learn and easy to use for everyone. The researchers in the study highlight the need for smarter solutions equipped with enabling technologies and the SME managers call for flexible removable solutions with sensors and vision systems for quality control and the ability to handle surprises on the way.
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