Cobots in the classroom

Few will argue that collaborative robots, or cobots, haven’t created workflow improvements in manufacturing. But to get the maximum value out of a cobot, it must be used correctly. Universal Robots, a manufacturer of industrial collaborative robot arms, has established the UR Academy to educate both students and industry professionals about advancing their cobot proficiency.

Mikkel Vahl, global head of training and education at Universal Robots, says the quality of his company’s product “is a given,” but that it’s “how you use the collaborative robot arms that determines whether you’re successful or not.” The UR Academy, touted as the most comprehensive training platform for collaborative robots, gives career professionals the skill sets they need to get everything they can out of their cobots. And it gives students the skill sets – plus the enthusiasm – to pursue a lucrative career in manufacturing.

Students at the vocational school Städtische Berufsschule für Metall – Design – Mechatronik in Munich, Germany, now train on the UR cobots in preparation for careers, automating processes in the automobile industry.

The first UR Academy class kicked off in 2016, and since then, more than 100,000 users and students from 130-plus countries have completed online and in-classroom training courses, which are available in 16 languages. There are now 65 authorized training centers in 24 countries with more planned this year. These training centers build on the company’s online training modules, offering more advanced, hands-on training sessions.

“We wanted to create in-house UR experts and upskill the workforce in mastering cobots,” Vahl says. “So far, it looks like we’re succeeding with that mission as we clearly see users taking UR Academy training to shorten their cobot implementation time significantly. And, they start building their cobot fleet with additional cobots much faster.”

Vahl says they have reached out to schools from elementary to college as well as vocational training centers to offer hands-on experience programming and the opportunity to operate real industrial robots. Whether it be for school-aged children or for long-time robot users, UR has covered all the bases, establishing specific curriculums for the full range of potential participants.

The PSG College in India is one of the schools now introducing students to UR cobots, providing an enriching, industry-ready learning experience.

Increased demand

Skills gap concerns have been around for many years, which is part of the reason UR has reached out to so many academic institutions and works toward establishing an interest in cobots early in a student’s academic career.

“Getting state-of-the art cobots into the classroom is instrumental in addressing the skills gap and offering students instant employability,” Vahl says. “A cobot is the perfect classroom companion; it’s safe to use around students and it’s easy to learn – yet it’s an actual industrial robot that students will encounter once they leave the school setting.”

Vahl notes he’s seeing an increasing number of school administrators realize that students who are trained on how to use cobots are in high demand. Therefore, he’s also seeing more demand from schools to bring cobots into the curriculum at an earlier stage.

“We’re hearing that teachers and students are much more motivated working with robots that have real-world applicability while [simultaneously] receiving an industry-recognized certificate,” he says.

Universal Robots’ Authorized Training Centers are offered at UR facilities around the world and through partners – as seen here at Advanced Control Solutions in the United States.

Cobot credentials

Unlike other robot training courses being offered at schools, the UR Academy focuses on initiatives that include a realistic and visual experience and hands-on and interactive training.

“There is no ‘death by Power Point’ in our classes as students work directly with the cobot, either in real life or through our free simulator,” Vahl says.

One of the main initiatives of the UR Academy is to offer “micro credentials,” which Vahl says human resource managers are interested in as they seek out employees. For students, micro credentials can give them a leg up when it’s time to start the job hunt. Micro credentials can also be a benefit to current employees seeking career growth.

Earning micro credentials occurs through the Academy Learning Management System where users access a 32-lesson curriculum. Schools, ranging from high schools, dual-enrollment courses to colleges, can purchase the Universal Robots Program for Education Package that consists of a UR cobot and all the relevant hardware including, grippers, conveyors, work pieces and I/O simulation test boxes.

“Students completing this program will be at the same level as industry professionals completing the core training modules at our authorized training centers,” Vahl says.

Remote learning

Online learning is a long-established education tool, and today more than 30 percent of college students take at least one online class. But with the onset of the pandemic, virtual learning became an essential strategy for the UR Academy to continue to connect with students forced to socially distance.

Fortunately, the UR Academy had already implemented its UR simulator and remote cobot control options, and even without the need to socially distance, these will continue to be key parts of the platform for delivering an experience similar to an in-classroom lesson.

“We’re developing a 3-D environment for the simulator that will provide the same kind of programming experience as pilots entering a flight simulator,” Vahl says. “This year alone, we’re hoping to virtually train thousands of students.”

Customizing education

Students have unique needs, which is why Vahl says the UR Academy is considering moving away from standardized modules and going with a customized application-focused module early in the program. This gives the students an idea of which path they can go down as they progress. For example, some students might need more training on CNC interfacing and not as much about vision-related aspects of cobots.

“We’ll provide a way for them to embark on that journey from the onset, both in online modules for self-study and smaller, more directed classes either in-class or virtual,” he says. “What we want to create is a degree of stickiness; we offer the free online training that convinces potential customers that deploying and programming a UR cobot is something they can do. Once they have the cobot, we keep providing continuous upskilling opportunities by offering the training content and the professional development they need for their specific scenario.”

Going forward, Vahl says they have a strict method for developing classes. First off, UR thrives on student feedback, and now that there are more than 50,000 cobots installed worldwide, there is plenty of feedback from which to glean valuable information. Vahl says that him and his team often ask if there is something missing, if student and user needs are being met, and if there is direction the UR Academy can go in to be of more use.

“Our learning philosophy is that we write the course,” he says, “test and rewrite. We only put out courses that people have relayed back to us that they need. We track what modules users complete, what their areas of interest are and whether they move on from core training to the next levels – all this data goes into our database so we can follow up appropriately.”

The UR Academy will continue to offer “customized journeys” and focus on content that involves the most popular applications, which are machine tending, palletizing and screw driving.

“Our cobots are very easy to deploy and use,” he says, “but we also know that customers who complete the instructor-led classes are most successful. They have a better understanding of how to use their robots and can apply this knowledge to other applications. As a result, they have fewer service calls and build up in-house expertise, which is valuable for manufacturers on so many levels.”

Universal Robots

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