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Robot Safety in Difficult Times

POSTED 02/04/2009  | By: Jeff Fryman, Director, Standards Development

Jeff Fryman, Director, Standards Development, Robotic Industries AssociationThese days it seems like the news is filled with nothing but more “bad news.”  The economy is clearly in a down-turn, no question about it.  Turn on the TV, read a newspaper, surf the web – there is no end to negative news and comment.  So what to do?

Well, for one thing, stop with the negative thinking and look to positive action.  I have a friend who owns his own business.  He has seen these business cycles before and continues to succeed.  What is most interesting is that each time we reach what might well be the lowest point in the cycle, he always seems to purchase and install a new piece of machinery so he is “positioned to benefit” from the upcoming rebound in the economy.  Ok, well and good; where’s the safety tie-in?

The team developing the new International Standard for robot safety – ISO 10218 – has been working with the robot manufactures to introduce exciting new safety features in their new products.  With the introduction of ANSI/RIA/ISO 10218-1, new robot features are allowed that follow the “lean” philosophy of manufacturing.  Lean in terms of reduction of waste and improved efficiency, and reduced cost to produce goods.  Although several new features are at play, the use of safety-rated soft axis and space limiting is the most exciting one, and the one I think will be the most significant driver for change.

These safety-rated soft axis and space limiting features will enable the effective reduction in a robot work cell foot print on the order of 30 to 40%.  That is a huge saving in any context; and a good example of lean.  But that is not the only thing possible with these features.

This feature is also the principle enabling technology for the new feature known as “collaborative operation”.  This is the direct interaction of the worker (human) and the robot (machine) while the robot is in automatic operation with servos on.  Any interaction between human and robot without this feature is limited to conditions where the robot is stopped and the servo drives are off.

Collaborative Operation: A human-to-robot interaction, as demonstrated by the R15.06 Robot Safety committee during their January, 2009 meeting in Auburn Hills, Michigan.

The R15.06 Robot Safety committee, sponsored by the RIA, is closely monitoring the international standard development work and providing input to it through the USA team members.  Work on the ISO 10218 part 2 – the robot system and integration – and ultimately the next revision of the R15.06 is continuing.  At the January, 2009 R15.06 Committee meeting, hosted by ABB Inc. in Auburn Hills, Michigan, the team had the opportunity to see a practical demonstration of this new collaborative operation.  The robot was fully configured and operational, only the end-effector was simulated with an easily reconfigurable demonstration for validating operational concepts.  I was very impressed with the demonstration that very clearly shows the efficiency and productivity that can be achieved in systems designed to employ this feature.  As anticipated, the demonstration facilitated some lively dialog among team members and hopefully will assist in developing the appropriate guidance in the ISO 10218-2 and finally the revised R15.06.

Designing new systems or retrofitting old systems with new robots to make use of collaborative operation will be a challenge, particularly for the engineers who accept the lead role in these new concepts.  But the rewards will be well worth the effort.  New productivity, new process efficiency, reduced complexity, reduced costs – all supporting lean manufacturing.

So here is the positive thought and means to move forward in difficult times.  Invest in the future; invest in new robots and new capabilities.  Invest in lean concepts of manufacturing and invest in the continued productivity of the American worker!

Looking for more information about these exciting new technologies?  Join us at the Spring Robot Safety Conference in Knoxville, Tennessee, March 23-25, 2009 where these and many other topics will be explored.  For complete event information, including agenda, click: Spring 2009 Robot Safety Conference or Register Now!