Too Many Mobile Robot-Sites Are Failing Safety Standards – Soon Integrators Will Pay the Price

24 September 2020
Upcoming safety standard for mobile robots will reveal a growing problem for the industry: Very few installations are actually safe, and neither customers nor integrators seem to know who’s responsible.

Upcoming safety standards for mobile robots will reveal a growing problem for the industry: Very few installations are actually safe, and neither customers nor integrators seem to know who’s responsible.

As a safety consultant, I have visited many sites that use mobile robots to make transportation of materials more efficient. However, only 1 out of every 12 of those sites lived up to the required safety standards.

This is unsettling. And what’s even more unsettling: Very few are aware of this. When employing robots in your operations, securing the proper safety measures has always been a requirement. But who’s responsible for satisfying these requirements?

When dealing with AGVs, as opposed to traditional industrial robots, integrators are responsible for the safety of the whole area of use. This includes measuring safety distances, working out training plans for employees, marking AGV routes, displaying the relevant signs, etc. In most cases, neither customers nor integrators seem to know this – and so it isn’t done.

This, however, will soon change. An upcoming ISO safety standard for mobile robots will make it very clear what responsibilities integrators have. Oftentimes, this has been overlooked because it is ‘hidden’ in an appendix in the current (and quite old) safety standard EN 1525.

But when the new standard comes into place later in 2020, integrator responsibility will be hard to overlook. The standard ISO 3691-4 AGVs is expected to be harmonized under the Machinery Directive 2006/42, thereby making up the new minimum requirements for AGV solutions.

In addition, some user companies are also starting to require integrators to explicitly state in contracts that they live up to the standards. This makes it clear that integrators have the responsibility for CE-marking the whole AGV solution. And integrators ignorant of this responsibility risk going bankrupt.

The positive impact of the upcoming standard is that the safety level at customer sites will improve. Hopefully, adequate safety measures will be taken, and integrators getting their act together will gain a competitive edge.

Integrators that don’t, however, will pay the price for their ignorance. And this price – as several cases have shown – can be quite high.

Integrators can no longer afford not knowing

Not knowing the prevailing safety standards can be a costly affair. Integrators can be ordered to document that every solution they have installed for the last 10 years lives up to these standards. And if the solution doesn’t – which is often the case – integrators must carry out re-designs at their own cost.

I’ve seen cases, where the cost of such re-designs would amount to €10M+. For some companies, this spells bankruptcy, and others will have their owners questioning their competence. Integrators can simply no longer afford not knowing the exact limits of their responsibilities.

Consider another example: In the current standard, when an AGV drives past some fixed structure, there must be at least 0.5 meters worth of space between the two, so employees won’t be stuck or even crushed. In the coming standard, it is very, very clearly stated that integrators are responsible for ensuring that mobile robots follow this rule.

If there is no room for these safety distances – for example in narrow hallways – the whole solution might have to be ditched. In such a case, integrators could end up covering the expenses and will be stuck with several AVGs for which they have no use.

The same goes for working out training plans for employees. Many customers aren’t aware that, with regards to AGVs, this is actually the integrator’s responsibility. Such training might just entail instructing employees not to cross certain lines when robots are near. Nevertheless, many customers are not aware that they can bill integrators for the making of such training plans.

Integrators will be held responsible, and customer sites will be safer

This isn’t all bad news. The coming standard should be celebrated by buyers and sellers alike, for it will ultimately make mobile robot-sites safer. Customers will know to hold integrators responsible, and the proper safety measures will, to a much greater extent, be taken.

Furthermore, following the coming standard, customers should know to ask integrators to fill out an inspection form that specifies exactly what is to be done. This isn’t a legal requirement, but it puts customers on strong ground. Integrators might also want to complete such a form to avoid expensive surprises down the line.

And, surely, customers demanding more from integrators must demand more from themselves. Integrators are, after all, not responsible for everything. For example, if customers significantly repurpose their AGV by assigning it a new route or by changing its cargo – they could, legally, be seen as integrators, and thus responsible for the safety of the solution.

The same goes for many everyday products. If I choose to cut my hedge with the lawnmower, the lawnmower supplier won’t be held responsible for the damages I take upon myself.

What the new standard does is shine some light into the grey areas that have for a long time made customers and integrators neglect their responsibilities. This is a fact to be celebrated, as it will ultimately make employees and customer sites safer. 

What are the 2020 European safety standards for mobile robots?
  • prEN ISO 3691-4: Driverless Trucks and their Systems – Safety Requirements

  • The upcoming safety standard is expected to replace the current standards by mid 2020. The standard describes the minimum safety requirements for mobile robot installations in the EU.
     
  • The biggest change in the new standards is that the integrators’ tasks have been significantly elaborated, especially those concerning the implementation of necessary safety measures at mobile robot sites.

 

Hans Morten Henriksen is a Civil Engineer, Chairman, and member of several Danish and international standardization committees.