Collaborative robots that work alongside humans — “cobots” — are getting cheaper and easier to program. That is encouraging businesses to put them to work at new tasks in bars, restaurants and clinics.
In the Netherlands, a cobot scales a 26-foot-high bar to tap bottles of homemade gin, whiskey and limoncello so that bartenders don't need to climb ladders. In Japan, a cobot boxes takeout dumplings. In Singapore, robots give soft-tissue massages.
Cobots made up just 5% of the $14 billion industrial-robot market in 2017, according to research by Minneapolis-based venture-capital firm Loup Ventures. Loup estimates sales will jump to 27% of a $33 billion market by 2025 as demand for the robotic arms rises.
About 20 manufacturers around the world have started selling such robots in the past decade.
The robotic arm at Mofongo's Distillery & Cocktail Bar in the Dutch city of Groningen helps bartenders and draws in curious customers.
Smaller businesses are using more cobots as labor costs rise. Artificial intelligence software is making it easier to teach them repetitive tasks. The latest models are sleeker and safer than their predecessors, which were often confined in cages to protect them from injuring nearby humans.
Cobot arms brake when they touch humans, and don’t have “pinch points” that could snag fingers and skin. One cobot maker, Boston-based Rethink Robotics, added smiley-face screens to its robots to make them look friendlier.
“Robots are now crossing the chasm from a niche to a mass market,” said Angus Muirhead, who runs a robotics fund for Credit Suisse. He likened the current adoption of robotics to the introduction in the late 1990s of smaller handsets that launched mobile phones into wider use.
When restaurateur Patrick Beijk opened Mofongo’s Distillery & Cocktail Bar in the Dutch city of Groningen in 2013, he went looking for a machine that could scale the space’s jewel-colored wall of spirit bottles. The robot he bought to do the job saves time and draws in curious customers, he said.
When Mr Beijk opened a wine bar last year, he bought a two-armed cobot programmed to extract wine from bottles without removing the cork.
In Singapore, AiTreat-a startup at Nanyang Technological University-has created robots that can give Chinese medical massages, which focus on acupressure points. The massage robots, which are warmed to 100 degrees Fahrenheit to mimic human hands, are being tested at the offices of chiropractors and therapists.
Both Mr. Beijk’s and AiTreat’s cobots were made in part by Universal Robots, which sold its first cobot in 2008.
Last year, the company sold 8,600 units. Universal Robots President Juergen von Hollen said the Danish firm has spurred wider adoption of cobots by using open-source coding that allows developers to tailor the company’s machines to their own specifications.
“By taking away the complexity, things are starting to happen,” he said. The slew of newer cobot makers has driven down prices, providing buyers with alternatives to big producers like Switzerland’s ABB , which sells its “YuMi” cobot for about $40,000.
Universal Robots sells its smallest model for around $26,000. Beijing-based Aubo Robotics sells its robot arm for about $18,000, said co-founder Jindong Tan.
Still, cobots can’t do everything a person can. Robots are getting good at repetitive work, freeing up humans for other activities, but have a hard time with more complicated actions.
Junji Tsuda, chairman of the Japanese robot manufacturer Yaskawa Electric Corporation, said robots can ably cut a cabbage into pieces but struggle to peel heads of lettuce that aren’t exactly the same shape and size.
“Human beings are so clever and so well created,” he said. “There are millions of tasks that humans can handle. Only a fraction of those can be done by robots.” But the list of tasks robots can perform is growing fast.
ABB’s YuMi used its robotic arm to conduct a performance in September by Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli and Tuscany's Lucca Philharmonic Orchestra.
YuMi’s robots also help make watches for Swiss watchmakers and box takeout dumplings in a Tokyo restaurant, said Per Vegard Nerseth, managing director of ABB’s robotics division.