Industrial robots are becoming still easier to install, re-program, and relocate. However, by repurposing the robot themselves, customers become responsible for carrying out the required safety measures – a fact often overlooked. If left unchecked, this could lead to more robot-related accidents in the years to come.
Stories of people being crushed to death, burned alive, or having their limbs amputated in robot-related accidents are, unfortunately, no tales of fiction. Between 1992-2015, 61 robot-related workplace fatalities were reported in the US alone. The rise of more accessible robot solutions in combination with widespread uncertainty with regard to safety regulations might lead to more robots operating without proper certification.
The aforementioned cases certainly represent the horror examples. However, they do underline the fact that robots are dangerous – even deadly – if the required safety measures aren’t properly met.
Collaborative technologies become more intuitive and more flexible, but very few know what this flexibility entails with regards to safety standards. In many cases, utilizing the flexibility of these new technologies makes customers responsible for the safety of the entire solution. But many customers do not seem to be aware of this.
The rise of DIY-robotics is a double-edged sword
The International Federation of Robotics celebrates yet “another record year”. A noteworthy statistic from the newest report shows that the global installation of collaborative robots grew by 23% in 2018. These numbers might help explain the strong media attention these collaborative robots, aka. “cobots” have received lately.
Numbers like these might be a great source for optimism, and the report also notes that various technological developments continue to make robots easier to use. Surely, this is a good thing, but it also represents one of the bigger safety-related challenges in robotics right now. And this challenge has not received much attention at all.
The issue is that robot customers in the EU are used to having the manufacturer or integrator conduct the CE-certification. However, when customers repurpose their robot – as new technology invites them to – they are regarded as manufacturers themselves, thus unknowingly becoming responsible for the safety of the entire solution.
Repurposed robots require re-evaluated CE-certification
To be allowed to operate in the EU, a robot must be CE-certified, indicating that it conforms with the health, safety, and environmental protection standards for products sold within the European Economic Area (EEA). Traditionally, robot solutions have been sold CE-certified and stay that way, because their function cannot easily be changed. In many cases, however, when a robot is assigned a new function – whenever its “flexibility” is utilized – it is considered a new robot solution and its CE-certification may need to be re-evaluated in many cases.
For example, attaching a new gripper with sharp metal edges to a robotic arm might call for a new risk assessment of the entire assembled solution. Many cobots stop moving only after hitting something, not before. So, when customers repurpose their robots, the robots themselves require new safety evaluations, and the customers become manufacturers, i.e. responsible for CE-certification.
Robot suppliers have a responsibility of telling the whole truth
Collaborative products and technologies are usually safe when sold and are marketed as such. However, their DIY-capabilities allow for customization and quickly make the initial certification irrelevant. In the box, they might be “collaborative and safe” and easily adjustable. However, if utilizing these advantages renders them unsafe and requires new risk assessments and certification, how safe and flexible are they really? Customers need to know that they become responsible. Perhaps manufacturers could do a better job of telling this side of the story as well.
Safety first, as the saying goes. The possibilities offered by new technology should be celebrated, but this celebration should never shout down concerns about safety. Robot-related deaths and injuries are real, and if we don’t insist on having this conversation, such incidents might accompany the rise of robotics worldwide.
Ignorance on the safety requirements could also have the opposite effect leading companies to implement unnecessary measures “just to be on the safe side”. One such example could be enclosing a cobot with fencing even when a sound safety assessment wouldn’t require it.
Either way, especially in light of the ongoing technological development, a meaningful conversation on safety seems to me to be very important. If we can be more thoughtful in our buying, selling, and operating of robots, our investments will be more profitable – and robot-related accidents will become rarer.