Robots have been working in industrial settings for decades—ever since the first robot was introduced at a GM plant more than 50 years ago. But the technology has come a long way in half a century—robots are now smaller (like Rethink Robotics and Universal Robotics), more agile, and work more closely with humans than ever before. As a result, collaborative robots, or robotic systems that work with humans, have been emerging over the last few years.
And with the new systems come concerns over worker safety. According to Bob Doyle, Director of Communications at the Association for Advancing Automation, we think of robots as separate from human workers—in many cases, there are physical fences or barriers to ensure safety. But now, because of advances in sensing technologies and vision, smaller robots are more frequently used alongside humans, in assembly functions, for instance.
In 2011, the Robotic Industries Association published industrial robot safety standards ISO 10218-1 and ISO 10218-2, establishing guidelines for safety in robot-human working settings. Now, a technical guideline called TS 15066 provides specific information on how (and how closely) humans can work with collaborative robot systems.
The new standard was written, said Doyle, to identify and define the processes and procedures to take place to maintain safety when working with any robots. The TS, he said, "goes above and beyond, and addresses this issue of collaborative robots. When the original one was written, it was more focused on the traditional industrial robots—not this notion of collaborative systems."
If you look at the history of the robotic industry, safety has always been a priority, he said. Since robots and humans have worked together, there have been roughly 30 fatalities. "One is too many," Doyle said, "but in comparison to many other industries, our record is great."
What helps define safety, he said, is "power and force limiting and speed monitoring." But what remains critical is risk assessment. Even if you have a slow-moving, padded robot, Doyle said, you still need to see what the robot is doing.
"Is it holding something sharp? If so, it could still hurt a person," he said. "The risk assessment of the operation, required by the company using the robots, is so important, whether it's a collaborative robot or not."
When a new robotics company is formed in the US, it is required by OSHA to follow the technical specification, whether it's done by their own company, Doyle said, or by hiring a robot integrator or other engineering company to make sure the operation is installed appropriately. At any point, he said, the company could be inspected, and if they don't meet the guidelines, they could be at risk of a violation.
What's interesting, Doyle said, is that the larger robots are usually safer than the smaller ones, since they have more clearly defined boundaries. "If you see a big robot doing welding on an automotive line," he said, "there are physical barriers to keep humans away from the operation."
One of the biggest safety hazards, he said, is when a robot needs to be worked on. What happens is a "lockout-tagout process," which eliminates power to the robot. Injuries often happen, he said, when someone is working on a robot and the procedure to black out the equipment doesn't happen. If they didn't "make sure there's no power, or the hydraulics were locked out—if, perhaps, a corner was cut to not lock it out all the way," he said, accidents can happen.
While many worry that robots are coming for their factory jobs, Doyle sees robots as a tool for humans. Especially, he said, collaborative robots that take up less room. In an assembly line, for example, a worker may be packing boxes and the collaborative robot can help the worker, by lining them up, picking them up, sorting them.
"Robots aren't coming to replace workers," Doyle said. "They're improving the workplace, so the company can hire even more people."
The critical issue, he said, is training more people for manufacturing jobs.
- 6 ways the robot revolution will transform the future of work (TechRepublic)
- How AI and automation could hollow out the US job market (TechRepublic)
- Why China is scooping up robots from Rethink Robotics to solve its manufacturing problem (TechRepublic)
- When robots eliminate jobs, humans will find better things to do (ZDNet)
- Why it's time to prepare for a world where machines can do your job (ZDNet)
Hope Reese has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Hope Reese is a journalist in Louisville, KY. Her writing has been featured in The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, Playboy, Undark Magazine, VICE, Vox, and other publications.