Collaborative robots (cobots) are coming to sweatshops

cobots robots
Image by Prostock-studio | Bigstockphoto

The deployment of robots in industrial and manufacturing settings is nothing new. But the rise of collaborative robots, or “cobots”, that are designed to work alongside humans in close proximity, is a relatively recent development that is starting to gain traction in various industries.

One of the most notable examples of this is in the electronics manufacturing industry in China, where labour costs have been rising steadily in recent years. In response, many companies have turned to cobots to help them automate their assembly lines and other production processes.

Cobots are different from industrial robots, which are typically used in manufacturing settings where they are isolated from human workers behind safety fences. Cobots are designed to work side-by-side with humans in close proximity. This makes them well-suited for tasks such as assembly, packaging, and inspection.

Nikkei Asia also reports that the cobots are easy to handle and do not require advanced programming to set up. This makes them suitable for a wide range of workplaces, including service industries.

Recently, Chinese startup JAKA Robotics announced that it has secured a total of 1 billion yuan ($148 million) to step up its development and marketing of collaborative robots. In fact, the company’s robot sales more than doubled in the first half of 2022 from the same period last year.

According to Young Li, the chief executive officer of JAKA Robotics, the funding will be used to “hasten the globalization of our sales and service network and provide more flexible intelligent robots to customers in different regions and industries.”

JAKA also plans to take advantage of the size of its home market to catch up with Denmark’s Universal Robots, the world’s largest collaborative robot manufacturer. The company is also looking to expand into other markets such as Southeast Asia and Europe.

SoftBank, one of JAKA’s major investors, is known to be bullish on the prospects of collaborative robots. SoftBank Group Corp Chief Executive Masayoshi Son said in a speech last year that the future will be dominated by artificial intelligence and robotics, and that the “entire working population” will eventually be replaced by robots.

Many are hopeful that cobots will bring an end to sweatshops and other forms of exploitation in the manufacturing and service industries. However, it is worth noting that cobots are not immune to the same issues that have plagued industrial robots for decades.

For instance, there is a risk that cobots will be used to replace human workers en masse, leading to mass unemployment and social unrest. In addition, the use of cobots can also lead to the deskilling of workers, as they are typically only trained to perform a limited set of tasks.

Thus, while cobots do have the potential to improve working conditions and reduce exploitation in certain industries, it is important to ensure that they are deployed in a way that benefits workers and society as a whole. Otherwise, they could end up causing more harm than good.

Nonetheless, Vlad Bouchouev, a blogger, said that humans will still be needed even in a tech-driven world. “The destination looks something like an Amazon warehouse with thousands of cobots and 3D printers, producing goods shipped by drones, all supervised by humans. And the sweatshop alternative looks far worse,” he said.

Manufacturers are no stranger to the deployment of collaborative robots in manufacturing settings. However, the pandemic has spurred renewed interest in collaborative robots as a way to reduce human-to-human contact on factory floors, rethinking how robots figure in the overall production process.

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