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Improving Workplace Safety With Robots

Improving Workplace Safety With Robots

May 31, 2023
Recent advancements in data science and AI means robotic vehicles and arms can eliminate employees’ exposure to dangerous machinery and workplace hazards.

In a new whitepaper, Improving Workplace Safety with Robotics, the National Safety Council, through its  Work to Zero  initiative,  evaluated the benefits of robotics and autonomous mobile robots, or AMRs, on reducing injuries and fatalities in the workplace.

“Robotics have long been deployed by organizations to improve operational efficiencies, but as companies increasingly look towards a more automated future, the many benefits this technology brings to workplace safety programs cannot be overlooked,” said Katherine Mendoza, senior director, workplace programs, NSC, in a statement.

“Recent advancements in data science and artificial intelligence mean that robotic vehicles and arms aren’t just capable of augmenting complex, precise tasks alongside human workers, but in many instances can eliminate employees’ exposure to dangerous machinery and workplace hazards altogether," Mendoza added. 

The report reviewed the five most common robot configurations available to employers – AMRs, Automated Guided Vehicles or AGVs, Articulated Robots, Humanoid Robots and Cobots  to assess their key benefits and applications.

The report offers the following key findings:

-- AGVs and AMRs are available as off-the-shelf solutions for small and large industrial warehousing and factory facilities, requiring approximately one week of mapping and route planning before robotics pallets and mobile shelving units become operational.

-- Remote-controlled robots offer high-value use cases for confined entry inspections, working from height and hazardous material handling, reducing the risk of human exposure to toxic gases, high temperatures, electric shock hazards and falls from height.

--Cobots and robotic arms are well established for repetitive manual tasks, such as machine tending, parts repositioning and pick-and-place – and implementation and return-on-investment (ROI) can be seen quickly enough for organizations of all sizes. Such deployments can reduce the risk of musculoskeletal disorders from repetitive manual work and allow workers to focus on more varied, complex tasks.

-- Deployment of safety-related robotics in more complex and dynamic environments, such as construction, mining and logging require longer development and testing times with the need for advanced computer vision and artificial intelligence technologies – resulting in such use cases being currently available only to large industrial operations.

-Pre-built, easy-to-use robotics hardware and software packages are being continuously developed for additional common safety-related use cases – meaning the real ROI concerning safety will be seen in the near future for both large and small industrial organizations.

In addition to concluding this technology can be ideal for manufacturing applications, where repetitive, high-volume production is necessary, the report identified several other examples in which employers can use robots to create safer outcomes for their workers, including:

● Inspecting confined spaces and industrial facilities. Organizations in the construction, mining and logging industries may especially benefit from using wheeled AMRs to remove human workers from on-site hazards. 

● Transporting parts, goods and materials. Used alongside sensors and computer vision, AMRs and AGVs can minimize the risk of human-machine collisions. 

● Using robotic arms for precision cutting and welding, as well as the safe handling of toxic, high-temperature or explosive materials. 

● Machine tending and parts repositioning by using robotic arms and AMRs to reduce risks associated with manual machine handling.

However there are barriers to adoption which include the following: 

Cost - While recent advancements have reduced the price and increased the viability of robotics for common industrial applications, costs of implementation and ongoing maintenance may still be prohibitive for smaller industrial operations.

Disruption in Workplaces - Some AVG and AMR configurations may be disruptive to some work environments or need to be coupled with additional safety technologies to effectively mitigate risk.

Fear of Job Loss -There is also an enduring concern that robotics or other technology may eventually replace human workers, but the report noted that, in addition to robotics having the potential to improve efficiency and safety, increased automation may help businesses reduce costs overall, which can lead to increased investments and the creation of new jobs in other areas, especially in engineering, maintenance and programming. Ultimately, this white paper found the importance in having a proactive approach to addressing the potential consequences of automation, such as retraining and reskilling programs for displaced workers, and ensuring the benefits of automation are shared equitably across organizations.

The report concludes the following:

Robots and AMRs are ready for deployment by small and large industrial operations in highly constrained applications, such as machine tending and in-facility goods and parts transportation.

However, advanced use cases are not yet available to organizations outside of those with larger budgets and the ability to invest extended periods of time for implementation.

Advances in the manufacture and design of articulated robotic arms, quadrupedal robots, wheeled vehicles and battery technology have reduced the price and increased the viability of robotics for common industrial applications, but levels of intelligence in control systems are still limited.

However, the fields of computer vision, data science and artificial intelligence are rapidly accelerating robotics towards a more autonomous future with applications better integrated with complex, dynamic environments and alongside human workers. Such advances, alongside the availability of pre-built hardware and software packages for ever-expanding applications, will offer high-risk industries robotic replacements at lower price points with better out-of-the-box functionality and ease of programming for staff without specific robotics training – leading to safer and more productive workplaces.

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