I fear that I have been asking the wrong question.
In talking with companies who manufacture robots and those that use them, I keep asking if it’s safe for workers to interact with robots.
Maybe the real question should be: “Isn’t it safer for workers in environments that employ robots?”
One answer to that question comes from Seegrid Corp., a manufacturer of self-driving industrial vehicles for material handling. Their vision guided vehicles (VGV) have traveled 2.6 million production miles without a single personnel safety incident.
These robots navigate using cameras, sophisticated algorithms, and machine learning. They do not need wires in the ground or tape on the floor or laser reflectors on racking. And they have been hard at work at Amazon, GM, Whirlpool, United Technologies and other companies.
Can manual forklifts live up to that safety record? No. From 2011 to 2017, 614 workers lost their lives in forklift-related incidents, according to a June 2019 report from the Bureau of Labor Services. More than 7,000 nonfatal injuries with days away from work occurred every year during that time period.
From a safety standpoint, the argument is on pretty solid ground that this type of automation is a safer alternative.
Robots Get Good Safety Marks
This brings up an interesting philosophy many people ascribe to automation.
“A robot vehicle must always be safer than a manually operated one,” explains Jeff Christensen, vice president of product, Seegrid Corp. “Everyone has that expectation, and this is why our company exists. Material handling is a dangerous profession. High employee turnover further complicates safety since a high percentage of the workforce is less experienced. These VGVs can offer a safer alternative.”
A safer and also more efficient environment is exactly how Ford Motor Co. would characterize its experience with robots.
“We choose to automate functions on the factory floor based on safety and quality,” explains Harry Kekedjian, manufacturing engineer manager for Advance Control and Digital Factory at Ford Motor Co.
Let’s take a closer look at these robots, which like humans, have evolved over the years in both form and purpose.
Robots have been used since 1962 when GM placed its first robot in a factory in New Jersey. The current iteration of industrial robots most commonly seen across manufacturing floors today are large and housed in cages.
“Traditionally, we have kept the robots and humans separate for safety purposes,” explains Kekedjian.
Very heavy machines carrying high payloads are under lock and key.
The Rise of the Cobots
The new guy on the block is a collaborative robot (referred to as a cobot) that has shrunk in size but increased in terms of function and ability. Unlike their larger cousins whose scope of job duties are limited, these cobots can be easily programmed to perform a variety of duties.
And they are moving closer, literally, to the human beings in the factory. The cages have been torn down and these friendly-looking robots sit right next to their human co-workers.
I can’t help myself, so again I ask, “Are they safe for humans to work with?”
“These cobots are functionally different in that they are power, and force limited, ” says Kekedjian.
To put my mind further at ease, he explains that Ford does a rigorous safety and risk assessment of all cobots that operate on the floor including a safety scanner around the manufacturing cells. That is in addition to all of the safety standards that have been programmed into the cobots. Ford uses ISO/TS 15066 which addresses end-of-arm tooling as well as ISO 13849-1 machine safety.
Robot safety standard is Roberta Nelson Shea’s particular expertise. While she is currently the global technical compliance officer at Universal Robots, she has long been involved in safety standards. She chaired the U.S. National Robot Safety Committee for 23 years. In addition to her day job, she is a convenor of the ISO committee publishing technical specifications on collaborative robots.
When Shea is asked about the safety of her company’s cobots, 42,000 of which are currently installed around the globe, she says that no cobot is inherently safe, as is it an incomplete machine, and there is no way to know how it will be used. However, the products her company produces have an “extensive range of safety functions.” She cites the e-Series cobot which has 17 safety functions. All of these functions are certified by TÜV Nord and are in compliance with the EN ISO 13849-1 and EN ISO 10281-1 safety standards.
Shea suggests it’s best to provide an extensive risk assessment that consists of identifying all tasks (operation, programming, setup, maintenance etc.) and all hazards that are associated with the task. Shea says that her mission is to “demystify robots and make sure that the deployment barriers are broken down. I am an advocate of global harmonization of safety requirements to reduce costs of design, manufacturing, and compliance.”
One way cobots are demystifying automation is their ease of use.
“We have found that people are adapting well to working alongside the cobots,” says Shea.
One reason might be that the training necessary to work with cobots is short and easy, especially compared to the weeks of training necessary for the larger robots of the past.
And what is currently on the market is only going to improve. Just this past March, Universal Robots announced it will be joining with Mobile Industrial Robots to share a 334,000 square foot facility to become the “cobot hub” in the city of Odense, Denmark.
Man Versus Machine?
As cobots continue to increase their capabilities, will this put the workforce at another type of risk? Will people lose their jobs to robots?
“This is a non-issue,” says Shea. “It has no meaning in the current economic situation. The biggest challenge is finding workers.”
Christensen agrees. “Many of our customers have having trouble finding people who are interested in working in warehouses and distribution centers, so robots are becoming a necessity.”
Finally satisfied that cobots are not a threat to the workforce, I ask Kekedjian how workers view their new colleagues, around 150 of which are working at plant across the company’s footprint.
“Robots enhances our workforce’s ability,” he says. “People can focus more on things that they are best at.” For example, cobots that are used for standard inspection purposes allows workers to focus on the issues that need closer attention.
In the company’s Livonia Transmission Plant, a cobot performs a job that is so ergonomically difficult for employees that they could only do that job for one hour at time.
Finding additional areas in which cobots can assist their human counterparts continues at Ford. In December 2018, the company built a new $45 million Advanced Manufacturing Center in Redford, Mich.
“We are excited to move the needle on the technology in our 4.0 strategy,” says Kekedjian. “It all comes down to the most efficient way to build the products that our customers love, with the number one priority being able to do that in a way that keeps our workforce safe.”
Ironically, the use of robots both for efficiency and safety is having the benefit of attracting more workers to the auto industry.
“We are always bringing students into our plants,” says Kekedjian. “All education levels come through here – elementary, high school, college – and everyone has the same question after the tour, “How do I get a job here when I graduate?”
With the next generation asking how to be part of a workplace that depends on robots as co-workers, I guess I can finally stop asking if it’s safe.