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The Key Differences Between Robotics and Collaborative Automation

Automation is crucial for manufacturers to stay competitive and future-proof operations. Yet for many, there are still difficulties and hesitancy about exactly which solution is suitable to make processes run as efficiently and productively as possible. 

When it comes to automation, fundamentally there are two options to choose from, robotics and collaborative automation. While both are used extensively in manufacturing, their distinct and unique characteristics make them suited for different applications and scenarios. 

The terms ‘robots’ and ‘cobots’ are often used interchangeably when discussing automation, despite a number of differences between the two. Understanding these key differences is vital in deciding which automation solution is suitable for your business. But what exactly is the difference between robots and cobots?

What are industrial robots? 

Primarily designed for high-volume, high-speed production, industrial robots were designed as an automation solution to take on heavy, labour intensive production tasks that require a constantly moving assembly line. Robotic automation has a fixed place on the factory floor, performing a single task with high precision and speed to deliver a fixed level of quality and output. 

Robots are perfect for production processes that will not vary for a long time, in essence large batches with little variability. Their efficiency becomes essential for the optimal operation of an assembly line. 

Robot working in factory behind cage

While they do have safety features, like emergency stop buttons, industrial robots operate at fast speeds and their primary focus is on efficiency rather than direct human interaction. Due to this, robots require safeguarding equipment in the form of fences and cages to protect human operators around them. Realising and designing the shop floor to accommodate robots can take a lot of time, and drive up the cost of integration. 

While perfect for heavy lifting, often used in the automotive industry to lift parts such as car doors, robots are not as accurate when it comes to force control. For tasks where a high degree of sensitivity is required, an industrial robot is not the best solution. 

What are collaborative robots?

Cobots emphasise human-centric manufacturing, allowing for humans to work collaboratively alongside cobots in manufacturing environments. Designed to carry out multiple tasks and simplify processes across the factory floor, cobots are highly adaptable and flexible to handle high-mix low-volume production batches without significant changes to their automation setup. 

While industrial robots are defined by fixed hardware designed to handle one specific product and repeat one specific process, cobots are mobile and easy to reprogram for different applications thanks to the simple programming software. They can be attached to work benches or fully mobile, like CoboTend, to be deployed across the workspace and the need arises.

Human working alongside cobot in factory

Unlike traditional robots, cobots are created with built-in force control and pressure sensors, meaning it will slow down or stop if its path is obstructed or a human approaches beyond the boundaries of collaboration. Following a thorough risk assessment, cobots can generally work closely with humans without requiring any fencing or cages.

In terms of payload and speed, cobots do not perform in the same way as industrial robots. Their lightness and adaptability can bring challenges to certain productions. Heavy tasks with large products are ideal for robots to undertake, while small series production where a high degree of precision is required is more suited to cobots.

The right solution for you

At their core, cobots and robots do essentially the same things. They enable manufacturers to streamline processes to increase quality and efficiency. Automation is vital to businesses remaining competitive and maintaining continuity in production. 

The decision to invest in cobots or robots depends entirely on your requirements and goals. No company is too small to benefit from automation, with a range of benefits and advantages to each solution.


One key difference between industrial robots and collaborative robots is the cost. The purchase price of robots is often high, meaning ROI can often take several years to achieve. Whereas not only are the initial upfront costs lower for cobots, but maintenance costs and energy consumption are also lower than robots for a faster return on investment. Generally speaking, ROI can be achieved within one year with collaborative robots. 

Industrial robots are inherently inflexible, meaning there are high costs involved in the design and programming effort to integrate them into production. Cobots are highly flexible and mobile, with their quick set up and ease of programming helping to keep costs low.


Choosing robots means choosing a fixed production process where the task will be performed for an extended period of time. Being designed for specific tasks, they often require more time and specialist expertise to reprogram and reconfigure. For large manufacturers with large volumes and standardised operations this does not pose any issues, but for SMEs, flexibility is vitally important. 

Cobots offer potential for widespread redeployment across the factory floor. Their flexible nature allows them to be moved and integrated to new applications, with any downtime measured in minutes and not weeks like industrial robots. Their intuitive interfaces, physical guidance, and wide range of grippers and tooling allows cobots to perform multiple tasks within a business.

Skill levels

Industrial robots traditionally require engineers and robotic experts to integrate and maintain automation. They require complex engineering and advanced computer coding to ensure they are optimised, up to date and successfully implemented. Most robot manufacturers have their own programming language, which must be understood in order to accomplish anything. The number of individual programming languages has long been a problem for manufacturers, with only large companies affording the luxury of hiring specialist programmers. 

By contrast, cobots are designed for ease of use, removing barriers for automation adoption among SMEs. The end-effectors, hardware and software are quick and simple to set up, with anyone able to program and redeploy cobots with no prior robotics experience. Where traditional robotic automation can take weeks to complete, automation through cobots can be achieved out of the box to accelerate their implementation and ROI. Easy to program for future changes in business, a single cobot can be redeployed several times according to the needs of the production line.


Cobots generally occupy a much smaller footprint on the factory floor than robots. Opting for cobots means companies can save money on expensive safety infrastructure, as they are designed to work collaboratively and safely with humans. Their small footprint and lightweight design allows them to be easily moved between applications without the need for costly redesigns of the workspace. 

While industrial robots traditionally demand a lot of retail space on the shop floor, some robotic arms do offer space saving options, such as overhead or wall mounting. 

Expand your production capacity with Cobots Online

When deciding whether to automate with cobots or robots, it is important to consider not only your current operational needs, but also your future requirements and how your chosen solution will adapt and grow with your business. 

Both large manufacturers and SMEs can benefit from the flexibility and cost-effective solutions that cobots provide. To learn about the range of collaborative automation solutions available, contact Cobots Online for an in-depth consultation or demonstration at our on-site manufacturing facility. 

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