Keeping humans safe from robots is one of the most important considerations, as we enter the age of collaborative robots. With robotics playing such a pivotal role in the future of discrete manufacturing, we asked a seasoned panel of industry for their insights and predictions on the role of robots.
Q: Over the past two decades, industrial robot-related deaths have averaged fewer than one per year. With the proliferation of robots and the widening collaborative applications, what is being done to ensure that number remains as low as it’s been, if not lower?
Alex Bonaire: Safety is always of utmost importance; however, a person who is determined to bypass devices and systems meant to ensure safety will always be a problem. Individuals who have bypassed safety devices account for most every injury and/or death that has involved robots. Of course, equipment manufactures must design products to ensure safety for the proper use of their products, but, like any other technology, proper training for its users is of utmost importance to ensure safety.
Craig Souser: Safety circuits and internal software protection within robot controllers have made huge strides in speed and reactive time.
George Schuster: Robot suppliers, line builders and end users are increasingly considering machinery safety in a more holistic way. This includes implementing the rigor of the Functional Safety Life Cycle and the consideration of safety in all aspects of machinery design, commissioning, operation and maintenance. The safety functions of machinery generally and robotic system in particular are increasingly thought of as core machinery functions and not as add-ons. This systematic consideration of safety improves the effectiveness of safety systems to complement tasks where workers and machinery interact, like collaborative robotic systems.
The focus on safety is in the context of global ISO and IEC specifications. Those specifications provide critical guidance on the analysis of risk and hazards; quantification of the risks; analysis and verification of the mitigation techniques and technical solutions; and validation/testing methods to eliminate systematic and other errors. This increased focus on safety methodology along with improvements in safety technology will continue to improve the effectiveness of safety systems to minimize injuries for all employees that interact with robotic machinery.
Corey Ryan: The RIA has done a great job promoting education on collaborative robotics. The most important point has been that the risk assessment is absolutely critical to any HRC application since the risk and severity of injury varies greatly by application. There is no single safe speed or safe robot. The risk assessment, however, allows developers to bring the overall application risk down to an acceptable level. Every application will have some risk, but, with proper planning and design, the user will typically be at a lower risk than most manual assembly operations.
Carole Franklin: Any industrial robot-related deaths would be a tragic loss, and the robotics industry strives to push the number as close to zero as possible. Efforts in this area will only become more important as the capabilities of robot systems become more and more refined, enabling ever-closer collaboration between robots and humans.
It’s therefore really important that people understand that simply taking the fencing away does not make an industrial robot system collaborative. Nor will all, perhaps not even most, collaborative robot systems result in the removal of fencing between the human and the industrial robot. There will most likely continue to be restricted spaces around industrial robots for some time to come, protecting humans by means of fencing and other safeguards. The collaborative workspace will most likely be a relatively small defined space at first, with fencing or light curtains around the rest of the robot.
Scott Mabie: We believe the ISO safety guidelines recently published for collaborative robots, which Universal Robots helped to draft, will bring a holistic review of all robot applications, not just collaborative robots.
David Arens: The methods being used are true risk assessment, area access denial until a safe condition exists and safeguarding in the design process. Often, the cause of human-robot unwanted interaction can be traced to a design approach that allowed for pinch points, entrapment or the inability to service the robot without a human being in a dangerous area of operation. No person’s life is worth a production goal or cutting corners in safe maintenance practices and operational design. Until this becomes a mindset and a way of life in the production environment, companies will shortcut things that will make their operations unsafe.
Allan Hottovy: The safest places to work are at companies that truly make a commitment to protect the health and safety of all employees. An excellent safety record reinforces this commitment. To keep it simple, they typically pick and follow globally accepted manufacturing safety standards that are accepted by the most countries that they do business with. For the ones that don't pay attention, there typically are enough local, state or federal regulations and penalties to enforce a safe work space if the existing laws are fully enforced and equipment is not built to acceptable global standards.