Manufacturers have always been a driving force for innovation in robotics.

That remains true today as a new breed of robot takes center stage.

Typical of the older generation of robots were the dangerous power arms that needed to be installed behind protective walls. The new generation collaborates, communicates and even moves with human workers to execute common tasks. This closer working relationship could profoundly change all types of jobs involving manual labor.

The next wave

In auto factories in Japan, there are already about 1,500 conventional robots per 10,000 employees, more than seven times the proportion seen in other manufacturing industries, according to the International Federation of Robotics. In Chinese factories, however, the ratio still stands at 30 robots to 10,000 humans. As these plants move to catch up with their global peers, the number of traditional robots at work will increase substantially.

At the same time, the rise of collaborative robots promises to bring a whole new wave of growth. Initially, the market will likely be divided between traditional automated machines and intelligent collaborative robots. But since the new breed is far more sensitive and flexible, it may soon become the norm. It is even possible that all jobs will eventually involve some sort of collaboration with robots.

No robot producer has been quicker to profit from this trend toward smarter bots than startup Universal Robots. The Danish company’s one-armed UR robot comes in three variants capable of carrying loads of 3kg, 5kg and 10kg. With its cost-saving design and simple touchpad-based controls, the UR has racked up sales of more than 3,000 units to BMW alone. The automaker revamped its U.S. assembly plant for the X-series SUV in Spartanburg, South Carolina, to take advantage of the new machines.

In June, automatic test equipment maker Teradyne bought Universal Robots for $285 million.

The big four industrial robot makers — Fanuc and Yaskawa Electric of Japan, Swiss-Swedish ABB and Germany’s Kuka Roboter — were all caught off guard by Universal Robots, and they are now hurrying to catch up.

This spring, Fanuc released a collaborative robot that works closely with humans — no safety barriers required. The company’s robots have always been yellow, partly for safety reasons, but the new collaborative model is green.

The company announced on Aug. 22 an equity investment and technology partnership with Preferred Networks, a Tokyo-based startup developing technology rooted in a branch of artificial intelligence called deep learning. Fanuc intends to work with its new partner to develop robots capable of learning how to work with their human counterparts on-site.

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