Get functional safety savvy now

To limit liability and the risk of getting a raw deal, OEMs need to develop a strong safeguarding background. This article helps you determine whether a potential business aligns with your long-term goals.

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Functional Machine SafetyBy Curt Miller, CFSE, PE, Exida Inc.

WHY DO industrial OEMs need to develop a strong safeguarding background? The obvious answer is to limit liability—costs that could far exceed the sales price of the equipment itself. This is especially true in the litigious U.S, where we reportedly have 40 lawyers for every engineer, while Japan has 40 engineers for every lawyer. That’s a net comparative effect of 160 to 1, and excludes the moral principle of “doing the right thing.”

For a real eye-opener, consider the struggle of SMS Group, a manufacturer of CNC machine tools for turning, drilling, welding, and leak-detection applications. Located in Saginaw, Mich., it employs about 100 people.

For nearly 20 years, SMS defended 23 product liability suits, all involving equipment never manufactured by SMS. In fact, SMS provided no service, no spare parts, and doesn’t even manufacture the types of machines involved in the claims. Each machine had at least two owners and, in some cases, as many as five. All 23 machines were older than 18 years, and all had been modified, at times without regard to government safety standards. Also, SMS often found that every safety door and guard had been removed prior to the accident.

Despite these facts, SMS had to spend $6.5 million to defend these cases. SMS deserves credit for surviving after having to spend so much to defend itself. Hopefully you’ll never get caught in this kind of guilt-by-association web.

So, how carefully should industrial machine builders choose their customers, and how finicky do they need to be to avoid such a raw deal?

The Gang of Four

The four categories of U.S. clients that need OEMs to understand how to incorporate a higher level of safety are: 1) high-risk manufacturers that can have one catastrophic event; 2) large clients with a corporate image to uphold; 3) marginal return/generic industry-types facing increasing competition; and 4) those recovering from an incident.


Safety Motivators for Users
Let’s first discuss the users’ requirements side of the equation. In the U.S., we have basically four categories of clients that need their industrial OEMs to understand how to incorporate a higher level of safety than typically required in the past (See Figure 1).

These four types of users include:

  1. High-risk manufacturers that can have one catastrophic event
  2. Large clients that have a corporate image to uphold
  3. Marginal return/generic industry-types that are facing increasing competition
  4. Those recovering from an incident

Each type is motivated to produce its end product efficiently and safely, so it can turn a profit for it owners or shareholders.

High-Risk Acknowledged Manufacturers
These companies could have one incident that could cost billions of dollars. If prudent, they’ll use a team that’s competent in the functional safety techniques applied to their high-potential-hazard process. If you work with them, your package should reflect their cautious approach as well. For example, if you supply turbo-machinery, you might want to provide safety and standard control packages that are scalable to customer preferences. In several instances, users have stated that their OEMs only have one solution available and they’re inflexible concerning functional safety issues that vary from site to site.

One incident in the process industries such as refining, chemical, and oil and gas production can have dire consequences. Multiple casualties, onsite and offsite in neighboring communities, could be caused by a runaway reactor or vessel rupture. By the time you add the fines, lawsuits, lost production, and capital costs, you could be talking about billions of dollars coming directly off the bottom line.

This sector has taken a big, universal step forward with a “harmonized standard” called ISA 84.00.01 (ISA 84, ref 2). This performance standard allows each user company to quantify its risk individually, and match it with an appropriate level of functional safety. Besides reviewing system integrity and using assessed devices (normally certified to the IEC 61508 standard), these companies also include “Functional Safety Management” (basically, a quality process) to minimize systematic issues that could creep into their safety lifecycle processes.

Likewise, semiconductor manufacturing is another high-risk sector. Richard Carter, formerly with Applied Materials, an OEM to the semiconductor industry, recalls a report of a fatality in Japan involving a running turbo pump coming off a machine tool, and hitting a technician. There also is the potential for injury from more than 100 machines operating in a typical wafer fabrication area, or “fab,” as well as possible releases of toxic gases such as phosgene, arsenic, and saline.

In addition, the semiconductor sector is a virtual third-party community of nothing other than SEMI S2 (Environmental, Health and Safety Guideline for Semiconductor Manufacturing Equipment) reports. Though the latest S2 modification does reference ANSI standards such as R15.06 (robot safety requirements) and ISA 84, this tightly knit industry doesn’t follow them or their development actively, although they do plan to use IEC 61508-compliant devices in their safety control solutions.

The nuclear industry is a third high-risk sector. One incident can’t be tolerated here. As a result of current high gasoline prices, the nuclear industry is getting a second look after about 30 years of construction dormancy. However, one event like Chernobyl, Three-Mile Island, or even the less-known Sellafield or Mayak incidents in 1957, would put the industry back on its heels, perhaps for more than another 30 years.

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