The UK remains slow in adopting automation and robot systems, despite the many benefits. What are the main reasons for this and what can we as engineers do to encourage or support adoption of robotics to make UK industry more competitive/productive?
This is a complex issue with no one factor causing the UK’s slow uptake of automation and robotics. The reasons often cited for the UK’s reticence to deploy more robots include:
- Risk of the unknown and lack of knowledge around the technology. There is a key role for BARA and the robotics industry to inform and inspire others to use robotics.
- Difficulty in financing investment in new equipment and technology. This is common with other type of industrial equipment and the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s 3 March 2021 budget announcement of a “super-deduction” scheme for capital investment could help here.
- There is a belief that robots are only for high volume/low variety environments such as the automotive industry. But robotics can be very flexible and provide real benefits in low volume/high variety scenarios. Again, this is an area where everyone involved in the industry needs to share this revelation with others.
- Finally, UK manufacturing has traditionally demonstrated a culture of “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it”. This means assets are used well past their intended lives compared to countries such as Germany, Sweden and South Korea who are willing to invest in the latest technologies. Whilst this is changing in the UK, the pace is quite slow and perhaps tacking the three factors listed above will start to change the perception of UK industry towards investing in new technologies.
All of the robots we think of being used in industrial settings are collaborative, but there are differences in the way that we collaborate with them depending on which part of the relevant international standard applies.
The term collaborative robot (or cobot) generally refers to robots that by design, have features that ensure they impart minimum harm should a collision occur with a human. These features include lightweight materials, smooth and rounded features and they are fitted with sensors & control features to control the speed, force and torque applied at each axis. This enables them to be used near humans with typically lower payloads, speeds and ‘safe’ applications (those that in themselves to not constitute a risk to humans such as picking and placing).
It’s worth noting, though, that whilst what constitutes ‘minimum harm’ is defined in a Technical Standard (TS15066), what that means from person to person can vary.
Where robots do not have these design features (what are often termed as ‘industrial robots’), collaboration is still possible, but this has to be achieved through the system design rather than the robot design.
Where a riskier process (for example a cutting application) is being carried out, the robot is carrying greater loads or at higher speeds, collaboration is generally not allowed. However, humans can still collaborate with these robots if appropriate risk mitigation measures are designed into the system. These measures could include separation of human and robot, reduced speeds, stopping the robot or operation of the robot under ‘manual mode’.
How do you assess the deployment of robots/cobots; what is criteria used to decipher between robot and a cobot?
The first factor to consider is the application that the robot is going to be used for. If this represents a risk to operators, then it’s likely to require separation from them with guarding. If this is the case, then a cobot could be used but a ‘normal’ robot would be just as appropriate.
If the process does not represent any particular risk itself then the next factors to consider are the speed and payload required. Most cobots are limited to around 15kg payload (although there are a couple that can handle more) and lower speeds. So, if you need speed and heavy payloads, a cobot might not be suitable. The caveat here is that there are ways to collaborate with a faster, heavier robot, but these need to be designed into the overall robot system.
One final thing to consider is whether a cobot is the right robot to have. Whilst they may offer an opportunity to have humans and robots working together, is that what you really need, or do you just need a robot to do the job?
How much has Covid-19 accelerated the deployment of robots/cobots and where do you see the most benefit?
The last 12 months (March 2020 – March 2021) saw one of the strongest deployments of any type of robot despite the pandemic. Whether this strength was wholly due to the pandemic is hard to tell but where many manufacturers held back on investments there were a large number who did invest in robotics.
The benefit of deploying robots in respect to Covid-19 are two-fold.
Firstly, robots provide an approach to bridging labour gaps and supply chain disruptions caused by lockdowns. This has given companies a level of flexibility, increased productivity and provided a resilient, local supply chain with products being produced where they are needed, when they are needed as demand fluctuates.
The use of robots during the Covid-19 pandemic has also shown how robots can allow companies to dramatically reduce human touch points in their operations. This has allowed companies not just to keep staff safe but also minimise damage or contamination. Key beneficiaries of this have been the food, drink and pharmaceutical industries.
Regarding use of robots in dirty and dangerous production environment: this may result in robot breakdowns and lots of time spent on cleaning all moving parts, what is the panel’s opinion on this?
Like humans, robots can be impacted by different working environments; whether damn, dark, dusty, hot or cold, but some robots are designed to be very robust and operate in challenging environments. As with any piece of machinery, users need to factor in the total cost of ownership and the longevity of the machinery, which is based on the environment and how well the machine is maintained throughout its lifecycle.
Even in the event where the projected lifeline of a robot is cut short due to the challenging environment it is required to operate with, the return on investment could still outweigh all other mitigating factors to make it cost-viable.
What should health and safety professionals be doing to make sure they can support the use and risk assessment of robots in the future?
When risk-assessing an industrial robot or a collaborative robot (‘cobot’), it’s unlikely that you would have a health and safety manager performing that task. Currently, there are only small number of health and safety managers in the UK that have a background in engineering; therefore, the risk assessment needs to be undertaken by someone with a combination of technical expertise; who equally has knowledge of the legislation and, crucially, has knowledge of the BSI and ISO standards (for both robots and cobots) – the technical reference guide. Those are the standards you use as the benchmark to ensure the safety for individuals, but also to provide a robust risk assessment. Furthermore, a risk assessment is not something that should be done in isolation, it should involve those working on the factory floor who have responsibility for operating the machinery.
Does the panel have any examples where robots have been used to support the testing of biological material?
The limits of the machine come first. Identify what are you trying to achieve throughout the lifetime of the machine to establish what safety levels need to be built in. You should anticipate process changes; if you haven’t considered the process variation, it is not a suitable assessment.
Reasonable, foreseeable risk is important and a process variation should be considered in some depth at the design phase. There shouldn’t be any surprises, as a robot does what you programme it to do with safety in mind.
Automation and robot systems are designed with dual circuit redundancy so that, if a fault occurs, they will self-diagnose and stop. As part of the conformity assessment (i.e. for CE mark), a risk assessment should consider fault diagnostics and ensure a safe recovery plan.
With regard to a collaborative robot’s safety, does the design process have a human reactionary element added into any solution?
Any machine, whether it be a collaborative robot (‘cobot’), an industrial robot, or even a guillotine or pedestal drill, you always have to take into account the potential for human error.
Within the Machinery Directive (which the Supply of Machinery (Safety) Regulations have implemented in the UK since 1993), there is a clause that you need to meet which takes into account “reasonable, foreseeable misuse”. One thing that can help, certainly for cobots, is to use the technical design standard, and by benchmarking against that standard there are a number of threshold values you can factor into the design process and the risk assessment.
Are collaborative robots CE compliant when coupled with end-of-arm tooling, and the product they’re handling?
When a company buys a collaborative robot (‘cobot’), it’s already CE (Conformité Européene) marked (UKCA marked for GB / UKNI marked for Northern Ireland) against certain European product directives. For example: they are conformity assessed against the Low Voltage Directive (LVD); they’re also assessed against the Electromagnetic Compatibility (EMC) Directive, but they still must be assessed against the Machinery Directive. This can only be done once the cobot’s programmed, risk assessed and the threshold values and the speed, which is extrapolated from various values, have been completed as part of the risk assessment.
Every time a cobot has been assessed with a particular end effector (i.e. a cutting tool), it changes the functionality of the robot, which means that the risk assessment must be revisited and documented accordingly.
NB: One of the reasons why people buy cobots is for the ease of programming it. In some cases, the safety system of the cobot does not allow for full collaboration, but companies still get the benefit of ease of use to automate a manual task.
There are no ISO machinery directives, but there are BS EN ISO Safety of Machinery Standards, which are not legal documents and there is no legal requirement to comply with them. However, they provide a good benchmark when carrying out risk assessments and determining safety to enable you to meet with current legislation.
The Machinery Directive 2006/42/EC is applicable when exporting to the EU and The Supply of Machinery (Safety) Regulations when importing to the UK (GB & NI). The former has a conformity marking assessment process for CE marking and the latter has a conformity assessment process for UKCA marking into the UK from anywhere in the world.
The standard for integrators is BS EN ISO 10218-2.
When robots are working correctly, safety is assured. Problems can appear when there is a fault or process variation. This creates a dynamic situation where hazards are more difficult to identify/control. What is the panel's view on this?
Automation and robot systems under the ISO (International Organization for Standardization) standards are designed with dual circuit redundancy. This is so the robotic unit can diagnose a fault and stop. The risk assessment (as part of the European’s CE mark compliance) should consider fault diagnostics and ensure a safe recovery plan.
What is your opinion on the increased use of collaborative robots in non-typical collaborative applications?
Working collaboratively is only one of the potential benefits of using a collaborative robot (‘cobots’). Invariably, their ease of programming and flexibility to be redeployed is a key factor when purchasing a robot. The type of robot / automation system needs to be made against the application criteria. Other systems / robot types will often need to be considered if a cobot is unable to meet the payload, speed, environmental or accuracy required.
Have any of the panel experienced a situation whereby a robotic automation solution was implemented to improve H&S levels from current standards but ended up having an adverse effect? If so, how, and why did it go wrong and what lessons were learned?
No. If the needs and goals of an automation project are not met, then it should not be signed-off and revisited to improve. Regardless, the robotic automation solution needs to be conformity assessed against the relevant mark; i.e. CE (Europe), UKCA (GB) and UKNI (Northern Ireland). More information on product marking can be found on Gov.UK.
Do you think that robot shielding and robot suits/covers may possibly expand use of industrial robots not dedicated to specific environment? Or are you for using, e.g., foundry dedicated robots in foundry environment only?
Many robot manufacturers now provide versions of their robots for application in certain environments (foundries, food industries, etc.) However, it’s important to remember that robots classified as ‘foundry’ versions or similar often include certain features that enable them to be protected against certain environmental conditions. As such, there is no particular reason why foundry robots should be dedicated to a foundry environment alone. You should check your environmental conditions and match those to the protection provided by the robot variant.
Suits or covers for robots can be used, but they can have their drawbacks. Due to the nature of most industrial robot applications where such suits are used, they can be subject to wear and require replacing. Wear on robot suits can be caused simply by the robot’s movements or by the process being used. However, suits or covers can offer additional level of protection in certain situations.