Traditional industrial robots are often rigid, designed to replace manual tasks at a given step of a factory or manufacturing workflow in order to maximize the efficiency of a specific process. Advances in robotics and other technological breakthroughs, such as artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things, has led robotics and industry experts to focus on a new kind of robot — the collaborative robot, or cobot — designed to work alongside workers.
Cobots can provide many advantages for smaller manufacturers and businesses — but, they can also pose new safety risks that many employees may not have faced in the past. Here is how you can ensure safety when employees are working with cobots.
Cobots and safe design
Traditional industrial robots are typically large, dangerous and built for a specific process. It is common for a piece of machinery — such as a robotic welder — to be closed off while in use, or secured with safety features such as light curtains. Often, workers may only approach these machines for the purpose of maintenance. When this happens, the robots are turned off.
Cobots are often more flexible, designed to slot into many different workflows and processes. Many collaborative robots use AI algorithms and optical sensors to move around a warehouse or interact with an industrial environment without the need of a human pilot. These cobots are also built to work alongside employees on the floor, and are usually designed with safety features — motion detection, padding, emergency stops — to keep employees safe.
Proximity to heavy machinery will always, however, present safety problems. Businesses that want to implement them into their workflows need to be prepared for these challenges.
While cobots have been around since the late 1990s, their popularity has only started to grow rapidly in the past few years. As a result, many workers may not have worked with them in the past and will need to be trained in how to work with and around the technology safely.
First, employers should remind workers that while cobots are built for safety, they’re not inherently safe. Any heavy machinery — no matter how intelligently designed — will pose some level of risk to employees that work near it.
If possible, all employees should give the cobot a certain amount of space when they are not working collaboratively. Many cobots switch between different modes, depending on what they are currently doing — moving goods, welding an object and so on. Not all of these modes are designed to be collaborative, and it is not always safe to be within close distance. Employees need to be trained on how much space they should give a cobot, depending on the task it is performing or the mode it is in.
Similarly, train employees to not rely on smart features, such as AI-powered navigation. While these tools are often advanced and updated regularly, they may not be responsive enough to keep unaware workers safe. If an employee crosses the travel path of a cobot, for example, it may not necessarily detect the worker and stop in time. Traditional safety solutions – such as light curtains, safety barriers, and emergency stop switches – may be required to keep employees safe if a cobot is equipped with a particularly dangerous tool, such as a welding arm.
In addition, employees may benefit from IT training or education that teaches them on-the-fly maintenance and cobot programming. Often, robots can have new navigation paths programmed even by employees who don’t have significant technical backgrounds. Training workers to be able to make rapid adjustments can ensure that potential safety hazards are fixed rapidly.
The right cobot for your business
You will need to make sure that the cobots you select are a good fit for your business. Some may not be a good fit in tight quarters, workspaces that are difficult to navigate, or whose floor arrangements change frequently. In these cases, you may need to choose a smaller and more maneuverable cobot, or one with more advanced navigation features to ensure safety.
If the robot needs to pick a certain payload or perform a task at a certain level, you should make sure that the cobot is rated for that payload or specific task. This will help prevent machine failure and other risks — for example, a picking cobot should not be selected if it may need to pick items beyond its payload rating. It could easily drop a too-heavy object, damaging goods and possible injuring workers.
Similarly, you should try to only use a cobot for the tasks it is designed for. For example, not all picking cobots will be able to carry a pallet safely. It will be important to consider every task the robot will be used for, and purchase one designed to handle all of those tasks. In some cases, this may require the purchase of multiple cobots to keep the workflow safe.
Building safety procedures
On the business end, you and your management team should be prepared for an in-depth risk assessment and cobot trial period. This period will allow you and your team to understand how safe a cobot is in your specific work environment, as well as challenges it might face.
Because they are designed to be flexible and adapt to changing workflows, you may need to consider the potential safety risks from all the positions a cobot may occupy during the risk assessment period — not just the safety risks posed by the activity you expect the cobot to perform most of the time.
If possible, include employees who will work with the robot in the risk assessment process. These employees may be more aware of difficulties the machine might face — such as difficult-to-navigate sections of a warehouse floor, or areas with dangerous machinery.
This risk assessment will help you guide both your cobot safety standards, as well as how you will train employees to work safely with the collaborative robots.