Rise of the robots
Technology increasingly assuming risks of most dangerous tasks
By Jack Burton
While we are still waiting on the arrival of flying cars and teleportation devices, workplaces around the world seem to already have one foot in the future thanks to the now-normalized — and increasingly-necessary — role that robotics have come to play in on-site labour operations.
Though their impact on the workplace is enough to show that robots have their place beyond the R2-D2s and Terminators of your DVD collection, the technology can still carry with it a reasonable amount of baggage in the minds of employees when it comes to the safety of their individual role and their workplace.
A more detailed glance at emerging robotics trends and technologies reveals a considerable amount of evidence that shows robotics, as it currently exists, is far from being a threat to human jobs or workplace safety.
In fact, robots are quickly emerging as one of the most impactful solutions to both issues.
Shrinking the danger zone
One common misconception is that robots exist to replace the worker.
While replacing human activity is a major factor in how robotics traditionally impacts workplace safety, this replacement is far from absolute or permanent. Rather, the replacement function of robots primarily focuses on removing the human factor from otherwise dangerous or fatal workplace tasks.
“Robotics gets a bad rap sometimes, in that it’s always thought that robotics and automation take away jobs,” according to Robert Vomiero, technical specialist in machine and robot safety for Workplace Safety and Prevention Services (WSPS) in Mississauga, Ont.
“From a safety standpoint, I don’t think of it that way. I think of the implementation of robotics as a means for removing workers from doing those demanding and dangerous jobs that put them at risk.”
First and foremost, robotics exists as a buffer between workers and tasks that would otherwise put their well-being in danger, says Todd Mason-Darnell, marketing manager of services and safety for international firm Omron Robotics in Hoffman Estates, Ill.
“Instead of having the worker expose her life or limbs to the hazards of moving sheet metal in and out of a 300-ton stamping press, a robot can assume that ‘risk,’” he says. “By changing the operation to a ‘no-touch’ environment, you can dramatically improve the safety of your workers by reducing their exposure.”
“Replacing operators in these environments allows companies to reduce or maybe even eliminate workers’ long-term exposure (to high-risk environments and tasks),” says Mason-Darnell.
Benefits cross industry lines
The potential utility of labour-oriented robots — especially concerning safety benefits — has a far more wide-reaching impact across various industries than the uninitiated may realize.
It’s worth noting, however, that the need for safe and secure workplaces is universal, and with safety becoming an increasing design focus of robotics technology, the list of industries experiencing ergonomic benefits from robot technology is only growing, says Vomiero.
“There are a lot of industries that could benefit from the implementation of robotics, but one area in my experience where I’m starting to see an increase in the use of robotics, that in the past didn’t exist, is in the food industry.”
Since robotics became a somewhat regular part of on-site operations in the food industry, workers are no longer “having to come into close proximity to the equipment which always poses a risk,” keeping them away from “a lot of the hazards associated with reaching into the equipment and having to access and readjust the product,” he says.
While their substitution in performing otherwise-dangerous human labour is an undeniable driver of workplace safety, the traditional industrial robot still comes with its share of limitations — the high power with which they perform creates a sharply increased risk factor in their immediate area of operation, thus requiring complete separation between the robots and any human operators or workers, says Vomeiro.
“Looking at larger industrial robots, they certainly pose a risk due to being intended to be able to perform high-strength tasks such as lifting heavy loads. So when traditional robots are in operation, there needs to be complete separation between the human and the robot.”
What might appear as a limitation, however, is one that robotic technology has already developed cutting-edge technological solutions to, he says.
“Where the industry’s gone more recently, and the direction it’s been moving in, is the implementation of collaborative robots.”
Collaborative robotics is an emerging form of workplace robot technology that’s “designed to work with human operators thanks to technologies like force feedback, low-inertia servo motors, elastic actuators and collision detection technology that limit their power and force capabilities to levels suitable for contact,” according to Tina Hull, functional safety expert and product engineer at Omron.
Since “force and speed monitoring are the defining abilities of collaborative robots,” the need for complete separation between workers and technology traditionally required by larger, more high-impact industrial robots no longer exists, she says.
With a design philosophy focused on maximizing their ability to ergonomically inhabit otherwise-human workspaces through features such as compact sizes, lightweight frames and lower operation speeds, it’s not only worth looking at the new avenues of safety that collaborative robots have opened up since their invention in 1996, but also observing where these avenues appear to lead — to a more shared and hands-on relationship between robots and employees that is just as important.
While larger industrial-type robots have historically driven workplace safety by isolating employees from high-risk tasks, collaborative technologies diversify robotics’ influence on workplace safety through the opposite means, by integrating human and robot labour.
What collaborative robotics brings to workplace safety is a technological transition — a shift that transforms the workplace robot from a proxy into a peer.
Emerging from this new collaborative relationship between robots and workers isn’t only the possibility for safer workplaces, but safer (and smarter) workers.
Soroush Karimzadeh, CEO of Novarc, a robotics firm in Vancouver, highlighted his company’s development of a “collaborative robot which works with humans, allowing less-skilled welders not only to do the job that previously only senior welders could perform, but also perform welds with greater precision, accuracy and speed.”
In fact, the educational capabilities of collaborative robotics have been embraced by Novarc as a key solution to the welding industry’s growing employment crisis.
“Highly skilled welders are in demand,” he says, with the industry “facing a labour crisis predicted to escalate to a shortage of about 400,000 welders by 2024.”
Through the development and deployment of safe, low-impact collaborative robots such as their spool welding robot, Novarc has provided “a welding technology that allows junior welders to easily and safely perform the caliber of work of experienced welders.”
The assistance and education provided by Novarc’s collaborative robots not only allows less-skilled employees to safely perform high-intensity work, but also frees up experienced employees to be assigned more demanding and high-level tasks.
Jack Burton is a freelance writer in Toronto.