How to Implement Safety into a Warehouse Robotics Deployment
August 05, 2019      

It’s increasingly common for warehouses, whether in e-commerce fulfillment operations, or just as part of a manufacturing company, to use robots to increase efficiency and output. If you’re thinking about adding robots to your warehouse operations, it’s crucial that safety is made a priority. Here are some practical ways and steps to take when considering implementing warehouse robotics.

Don’t scale up too quickly

Companies often get overly excited when they start using warehouse robots, and end up buying too many pieces of equipment too rapidly. Then, necessities such as employee education and training suffer. People need training to learn how to use robots safely. Sacrificing that necessity could lead to more accidents, or make workers feel overwhelmed and confused.

Keep this in mind if you’re feeling tempted to start using a lot of warehouse robots in a relatively short period. It’s generally better to buy robots for your business gradually, or at least ensure you give employees ample training time.

It’s also crucial that you choose the right robotics business model, as this affects scalability. For example, if you’re part of a large enterprise, any warehouse robotics purchase will likely be a capital expenditure. Then, a successful pilot program would occur before the company thinks about expanding its robotics use.

If you work at a smaller business, the costs would likely fall under operational expenses. In that case, a robots-as-a-service (RaaS) model lets companies deploy robots faster, and the respective facilities don’t treat them as capital expenses. Customers can rent the robots directly from providers, and enjoy easy scalability as business needs dictate. Another plus is that these specialty companies typically handle the costs of the required maintenance.

You can also look for plug-and-play options that incorporate into the warehouse components that your workers already know. For example, the viarobot is a highly scalable solution that adjusts to the current layout of your warehouse. That means workers won’t deal with too many changes at once as they get acquainted with the robots.

Teach workers how to inspect and report abnormalities

Using warehouse robotics safely requires that workers understand the proper inspection procedures. Certain inspections will need to happen before every use, as well as checks that occur after a particular number of operating hours pass. Consider making checklists to guide employees through what to examine. Then, you’ll ensure they go through the right steps and introduce an element of personal accountability.

It follows, then, that workers also need to know how to report any unusual behavior. Making the process as easy as possible should increase adherence. If employees are not sure how to mention something strange to superiors through the proper channels, they may avoid doing so and figure that someone else will take care of it.

If your workers speak up about concerns they notice about robots, take them seriously. Never make them feel like you aren’t listening to their findings and taking action regarding their concerns.

Assess and prepare your facility

The Internet makes it easier than ever to research the available warehouse robotics possibilities. That’s especially true since you can do things like read white papers and case studies, or watch video clips of the robotics in action. However, don’t assume that any warehouse robot you see online or elsewhere is a good fit for your facility. There is no universal solution. It’s necessary to study the environment and a robot’s operation first.

When performing a safety assessment for mobile warehouse robots, the payload must be considered as well.

For example, Locus Robotics urges potential clients to perform a facilities assessment as they decide whether to implement robotics into their warehouse. In addition, people can visit a Locus Robotics location to see the machines at work, so it’s easier to make well-informed decisions. When possible, take an opportunity like that to accurately judge if a robot that’s on your short list is a feasible option.

As you assess warehouse robots, also take the time to consider any loads you will need the machine to carry. Cargo/payload is an essential part of any safety assessment, because an inappropriate pairing of a robot and its load could cause hazards to nearby workers. The danger usually goes up in proportion to the weight carried. For example, a wheeled robot that moves single boxes around a facility doesn’t pose the same risks as one that totes a pallet with dozens of stacked cartons.

If you do decide your facility is a good fit for the robotics solution you’re most interested in, go through precautionary steps to prepare your facility. One smart option is to use safety paint to help people stay out of a robot’s path.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration does not have standards for the robotics industry, but it’s still your responsibility to keep the warehouse safe for employees. Statistics say approximately 51,500 warehouse workers get hurt or killed on the job each year. Safety paint is an effective but low-cost way to help keep employees from walking into a robot’s path.

Consider using sensors to make people safer

Robots have numerous specialized components that help them function. From a safety point of view, sensors play significant roles in helping industrial robots “see” where humans are and avoid them. Sometimes, though, the sensors are on the employees instead of the machines.

Amazon developed a safety vest with sensors to work with its robots in warehouses. Image: Robotics Business Review.

For example, workers at Amazon’s warehouses wear safety vests equipped with sensors that make robots steer clear of them. That solution was a custom one built in-house, but it gives an example of how you can think creatively about how sensors could keep your warehouse workers safer.

Georgia Tech researchers developed sensors that individuals wear on their arms when working close to an industrial robot. The sensors detect a wearer’s muscle movements and can recognize how certain changes in muscle tension correspond with exerting force or relaxing one’s arm. After getting information about a person’s actions, the robot adjusts its movements accordingly by speeding up or slowing down.

Robots have integrated sensors, but looking at sensor-equipped gadgets people wear or use while in the warehouse is a worthy alternative. You may find using both human-worn and integrated robotics sensors keeps the workplace safer for everyone. It’s also wise to think about the kind of work humans will do near the robots. Taking that into account could make it easier to choose the right sensor solutions.

Focus on working with companies that prioritize robotics safety

A market growth report projects the warehouse robotics industry to be worth $4.4 billion by 2022. Analysts also believe this is the year when the robotics sector starts paying more attention to safety. The need for that priority becomes increasingly apparent considering how dependent some companies are on industrial robots once they implement them into their processes.

And, the cost is high if things go wrong. Ocado uses robots in its warehouses to accelerate its growth in the grocery industry. However, when a robot caused a fire in a facility in February, the event destroyed the warehouse and resulted in $137 million worth of damages.

You should strongly consider prioritizing giving your business to companies that show an obvious commitment to safety. Many of the leading companies have dedicated sections on their websites that discuss the specific safety features their robots offer and show videos of how they work.

Also, ask about how often the robotics equipment gets new software, and what steps you’d need to take to get it. A severely outdated warehouse robot could pose hidden dangers and make the machine more vulnerable to cyberthreats. Fortunately, it’s common for companies to provide cloud-based updates that happen automatically or on a preferred schedule.

Look for ways to implement robots that reduce known risks

One of the advantages of robots is that they can do jobs that are hazardous to humans. Another way you could safely bring industrial robots to your warehouse is to specifically look at how they could make work shifts and tasks less dangerous for employees.

Think about maximizing your efforts concerning warehouse robotics safety by assessing which tasks are the most dangerous for your workers. Examining accident reports could point you in the right direction as you analyze the most threatening work. Then, evaluate whether there are robotic solutions that could cut risks.

Since robots don’t require rest and keep performing consistently throughout operations, they could be excellent for handling work that typically causes substantial fatigue and may make workers prone to getting hurt once they become tired. As you take this approach of using robots for risk reduction, carry out the suggestions mentioned previously here to keep your warehouse robotics implementation as safe as possible.