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Robot association, government agencies team up to promote safe use of robots

Issue: March 2018

Two government agencies and the Robotic Industries Association (RIA) have formed an alliance to increase awareness of safety hazards from traditional industrial robots and new robot technologies. Initial reaction from some robot makers serving the plastics industry is positive.

A worker reaches into a work cell that includes a Fanuc  CR-35iA collaborative robot.

“Education is key to the success of any industrial robotic installation to ensure safety,” said Wes Garrett, an authorized system account manager at Fanuc America. “This is even more important when it comes to human-robot collaboration. I believe this new alliance will play a great role in providing the training and education required for workers to better understand how a collaborative robotic system can be safely operated. It will also educate employers on how to specify and understand when collaborative robotics systems do and don’t make sense to implement.”

The two-year alliance involves RIA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). It aims to promote best practices to control human exposure to hazards involving robots, according to an OSHA news release.

“We think this is an important initiative,” said Claude Dinsmoor, who serves on the American National Standards Institute (ANSI)/RIA R15.06 committee for industrial robot safety and is the GM for Fanuc America’s general industry and automotive segment. The R15.06 standard provides guidelines for the manufacture and remanufacture of robots, and methods for safeguarding robots to enhance worker safety. “OSHA has been a long-term participant in the RIA/ANSI standards activities and references the R15.06 standard as a best-practice document for implementation of occupational health and safety standards in an industrial environment.”

Dinsmoor also emphasized the importance of education. “The better educated users, implementers and regulatory officers are on the principles of appropriate application of robots and safety deployment, the safer and more productive American industry and workers can and will be.”

“This should be good,” said Mike Greenhalgh, director of operations for Yushin America. “Some of these specifications can be worded tricky and need some interpretation, so this alliance should help to ease some of that.”

Greenhalgh said one of the biggest safety concerns with robots is that customers will run automated equipment without the proper guarding. “Our robots are much faster than collaborative robots and need to be guarded properly.”

Greenhalgh said Yushin offers all its customers training on robot safety during installation. The company offers safety guarding on every project. After completing an installation, Yushin personnel will unplug the robot if the customer doesn’t have safety guarding and make the customer acknowledge that action in writing. “Our manuals thoroughly outline the needed safety conditions for operation.”

Dinsmoor touted Fanuc’s safety features.

“We have the industry’s strongest offering of integrated safety products and options for robotics. These options allow Fanuc robot users to quickly and efficiently deploy safety that is deeply integrated into the robot,” he said.

Fanuc’s Dual Check Safety (DCS) system features safety-rated soft-axis limiting, which keeps the robot within defined areas or zones, allowing it to operate only in certain locations. Unlike traditional external limiting systems, which operate without knowledge of where the robot is at any moment and where it might be going, DCS allows users to optimize the area the robot can travel, taking into account the needs of the application, instead of just the full reach of the robot. This can reduce the footprint of the manufacturing cell by about 20 percent to 30 percent.

For Dinsmoor, robotic safety starts with risk assessment. “The latest RIA/ANSI and ISO [International Organization for Standardization] safety standards require risk assessment for all robot systems. With a comprehensive risk assessment and resulting safety design, the industry has demonstrated that robots can be deployed which will operate for years and be safe for employees working in conjunction with these systems.”

Particularly with many first-time robot users, working with a systems integrator for risk assessment is key to success. Fanuc doesn’t offer risk-assessment classes, preferring instead to work with organizations such as the RIA, which provides comprehensive training to integrators and robot users for the development and application of effective risk assessments for robotic systems.

Advances in sensor technology are leading to more cobots being deployed inside plastics plants and other manufacturing facilities.

“The buzz about collaborative robots, or cobots, is evolving,” said Sebastien Schmitt, product manager for Stäubli North America. The company’s TX2 robots offer a digital encoder for each axis and an integrated safety board. The digital encoder enables the user to program the robot for each level of man-robot collaboration (MRC), from MRC-1 to MRC-5. MRC-1 is a robot working in a cage, MRC-2 is a robot in a stationary position when a person is present. Under the conditions of MRC-3, the robot slows to a safe speed as a human approaches; MRC-4 and MRC-5 are for robots and people in motion in the same workspace.

Before determining which level offers the proper level of safety and functionality, Stäubli works with plant officials on a risk analysis.

“We look at the risks and how we address them,” Schmitt said. “For example, if you have a robot with a knife, the risk isn’t from the robot, but from the knife. The blade has to stop before a person comes near the robot.”

If, on the other hand, the plant will use the robot to put inserts into a molding machine, the robot and humans can be in motion and in close proximity with relatively little risk.
OSHA said more than 1.5 million industrial robots are operating worldwide, with another 1 million expected to be added by next year.

“As robotic applications continue to expand, recognizing the safety and health needs of workers who operate and service these systems is vital,” said Loren Sweatt, deputy assistant secretary of labor for OSHA.

Allan Gerlat, correspondent


For more information

Fanuc America Corp.,
Rochester Hills, Mich., 888-326-8287, www.fanucamerica.com

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health,
Washington, 800-232-4636, www.cdc.gov/niosh

Occupational Safety and Health Administration,
Washington, 800-321-6742, www.osha.gov

Robotic Industries Association,
Ann Arbor, Mich., 734-994-6088, www.robotics.org

Stäubli Corp.,
Duncan, S.C., 864-486-5421, www.staubli.com

Yushin America Inc.,
Cranston, R.I., 401-463-1800, www.yushinamerica.com