As we move closer to achieving the Industry 4.0 vision – where man and machine work together on the smart factory floor – the need to consider the safety and compliance requirements of this new kind of workplace has become paramount. By Shermine Gotfredsen, General Manager, Universal Robots APAC.

According to the US consultancy IDC, there is a growing preference across the Asia Pacific region to invest in manufacturing automation compared with investment in innovation processes, as it offers more tangible benefits and a clear return-on-investment (ROI). In particular, in countries where wages are increasing such as Australia, Singapore and China, companies are looking for fast productivity gains that allow organisations to remain competitive while guaranteeing high wages.

Unlike traditional factories, the smart factory sees employees working side-by-side with collaborative robots or ‘cobots’, using these robots as a multi-functional tool, like a screwdriver, packaging device or palletiser. Ensuring the safety of this type of working environment becomes particularly vital when bearing in mind that 85% of manufacturers now believe the connected workforce will be commonplace in the industry by 2020. In fact, IDC suggests that plant modernisation is a key technology priority for 2016 in the Asia Pacific region.

Taking into account the changing nature of manufacturing processes globally, new guidelines on how to ensure the safety of human workers in collaborative robotic systems were published by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in February this year. The long awaited guidelines, ‘ISO/TS 15066’ were developed as a supplementary document to support the ISO 10218 ‘Safety Requirements for Industrial Robots’ standard. ISO/TS 15066 is a comprehensive document that aims to help integrators of robotic cells conduct risk assessments when installing collaborative robots.

Universal Robots (UR) has spent a significant amount of time ensuring its robots are not just meeting compliance standards but are taking safety to the next level while also advancing productivity and process innovation. In fact, due to the advanced safety functions embedded within UR’s patented safety system, robots can be operated cage-free (subject to mandatory risk assessment) in 80% of the thousands of applications now installed worldwide.

This lack of a need for safety caging encouraged TCI New Zealand, an Auckland-based plastic injection moulding company to purchase a U3 robotic arm from UR. Previously the company employed two people to manually add rubber feet and labels to the company’s EasiYo yoghurt maker line, in two 12-hour shifts per day. According to Quintin Fowler, Managing Director at TCI, a key factor leading to the company’s decision to purchase a UR robot was the fact that no guarding was needed.

“One thing I loved about Universal Robots was that we didn’t have to worry about guarding,” he says. “With a lot of the other robots in the market guarding was an issue because you’d have to use safety barriers for all the machines which just complicates the situation.”

UR’s safety system features eight adjustable safety functions that allow users to alter a range of parameters to reduce the risks involved with implementing an industrial robot application. These include limiting the force, speed, power or momentum of the robot, or restricting its workspace using safety boundaries, to reduce risk of injury. For example, the speed of UR’s cobots can be reduced while the worker is working beside it to minimise the possibility of contact with staff.

Undoubtedly, the collaborative workforce – featuring human and robots complementing each other in their roles – offers significant opportunities to enhance manufacturing productivity and innovation, as well as safety and overall job satisfaction in the workplace. While a conventional approach towards robot safety is necessary, there remains a lot of ongoing research into how we can define practical guidelines to ensure safe human-robot interactions and unleash the full potential of collaborative robots. It will certainly be interesting to see how this work evolves.