Automakers are leading the way in the adoption of co-bots, which they say are more cost-effective than industrial robots. The average selling price of a co-bot is close to $30,000, a number expected to drop to $18,500 by 2020. Automakers also prefer the flexibility that comes with co-bots, which don't need to be in a fixed factory location caged in or cordoned off and therefore can be rolled around to different parts of the factory.
"You can have them do a task in the morning and an entirely different task at a different location in the afternoon," Tobe said.
Car companies say they're also safer for human workers, in large part due to sensors that detect when fingers or a hand is in the way. Some co-bots also have "deep learning" capabilities through artificial intelligence, which allow them to figure out their tasks while on the job instead of being programmed beforehand.
Jeff Burnstein, president of the Robotic Industries Association in Ann Arbor, Michigan, says the potential upsides of integrating co-bots on the factory floor are the reason auto companies are giving them a hard look.
"I'm sure all automakers are looking into co-bots because of the promise: low-cost, quick to set up and operate, minimal programming, don't need a lot of floor space to work safely around people," he said.
Still, it's the early days of collaborative robotics. Burnstein predictions that the global market for co-bots will reach $3 billion by the end of the decade are overly optimistic.
"This collaborative robot technology is still relatively new," he said. "Whether or not they're suitable for all applications, whether they're too slow, whether they are as reliable as industrial robots, whether they're truly going to be safe — there's a lot of hurdles still."