How Factory Automation Creates Safer Environments
While a significant chunk of the ongoing national conversation around industrial automation focuses on job elimination and economic impacts, we’d like to shift some attention to another important aspect of the topic: the benefits of factory automation in creating safer manufacturing environments.
Across all the industries we serve, we receive more and more requests to automate tasks and workflows where humans may face safety hazards, both to protect the employee and to reduce business liability. Here are several key ways to view automation as both a tool and a strategy toward improving safety in your manufacturing environment.
We often hear about factory automation being good for replacing humans performing repetitive, unergonomic work tasks with robotic solutions. While this improvement is usually pursued for productivity and quality reasons, it does inherently address safety concerns as well. Freeing an employee from duties located near hazards on the manufacturing line, as well as eliminating risks of repetitive motion injuries, all count as safety benefits that result from removing the human from the potentially hazardous workflow.
What about solving in the opposite direction: removing the hazard from the human space? Automation allows us to relocate potentially risky equipment, work tasks and energy sources from areas that require a human presence. For example, a quality inspection station might require a human to pressure check and visually examine an assembly, where the pressure-checking process presents a compressed gas hazard. Automating and relocating the pressure-checking process upstream in the line, away from the remaining human visual inspection station, safely separates the hazard from the worker.
A Watchful Eye
Arguably, half of the challenge of averting hazardous manufacturing conditions is catching the warning signs of looming problems before they become major issues. Automation can act as a persistent, ultra-reliable observer of our manufacturing processes, looking for signs of human safety risks and taking corrective action before we’re even aware of the situation. This type of benefit can be applied across any automation scale, from SCADA-level infrastructure monitoring down to individual machine safety sensors.
Our perspective on hazard monitoring is that it works in two directions, just like our above description of both removing the human from the hazard and the hazard from the human. Monitoring for safety risk cases should equally react to abnormal system conditions as well as abnormal human operator actions. For example, automation can monitor boiler pressure spikes resulting from a downstream load suddenly slamming closed, initiating a burner ramp-down and high-pressure vent valve opening. Likewise, automation could monitor a human operator while they manipulate manual blow-down valves, sounding alarms and reacting with safety controls should the valve be opened too far or for too long.
Continuous Safety Improvement
Building on our previous point that automation provides real-time safety monitoring on our behalf, we can extend this benefit further by allowing automatic monitoring solutions to drive continuous safety improvement. For example, setting up data recording and reporting for monitored systems can reveal relationships between specific system conditions and resulting safety concerns. This data set can then be utilized for either human decisions on adjusting operating conditions to avoid the hazard, or automated machine learning-based adjustments to be made by the control system itself.
For example, if a fastening station measures an increased rate of unsuccessful tool runs, creating material-shatters that risk operator safety, the automated control system can self-adjust the tool speed, tool approach speed, drive force and other variables until the reject quantity falls back within limits. This automated continuous improvement action benefits safety as well as overall productivity, yields and costs.
An emerging function of process automation that we’re especially keen to promote is that of in-situ operator reinforcement. At its core, perpetual operator reinforcement takes a traditional paper-based standard operating procedure (SOP) and integrates it into an automated system’s human interface (HMI) frontend. As the system works, human operators are alerted and guided through their required workflow natively within the process system, and prompts for guidance, clarification and even training instructions all live within the same user interface. In parallel, more user input is collected, allowing managers to craft and tune training and performance strategies at the control-system layer automatically.
Expanding Opportunities With Factory Automation
As manufacturing industry employment evolves away from predominantly manual labor jobs to a wider mix of skill-based, cross-functional duties, we find increasing opportunities available for employees who traditionally have not pursued work in this sector. By utilizing factory automation in safety-focused ways like those described above, the net results include tremendously safer job positions on the manufacturing line. Another result is additional tech-centered jobs supporting these newly automated systems. Wider age ranges, people with high-functioning disabilities, career-transitioning employees and others who are normally left out of manufacturing recruiting can now safely and positively engage with manufacturers in many new ways, creating positive benefits for everyone.
Automated Machine Systems (AMS) is an industrial automation integrator in Cincinnati, Ohio. We specialize in advanced automation solutions for medical, plastic processing, consumer goods and transportation industry manufacturers. With 99.5 percent on-time delivery, 97 percent customer satisfaction, 24/7 service and over 20 years of earning our customers’ trust, AMS is your partner for industrial automation. To chat, book a virtual meeting.
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