Why modern manufacturing environments require rethinking safety

The variables to manufacturing success are vast. Supplies, equipment, customisation, and people represent some of the broad categories that need to beconsidered by manufacturers. Another category that impacts successful manufacturing operations, and should be assessed regularly, is factory overhead which includes utilities to power machines and illuminate assembly lines as well as insurance and risk remediation (also known as safety).

Safety has always been an important topic for manufacturers. Executed properly, risk remediation or safety management programs are capable of delivering significant returns on investment. But, creating safe manufacturing environments today means considering modern day factors like space constraint, adaptation, connectivity and robotics.

Smaller Machines, Greater Proximity to Danger

Anyone that has been involved in manufacturing or factory-based production for even a short time has likely heard the term, Industry 4.0. It has come to be a sort of catchall for almost any effort to solve production problems through the joining of machinery to data collection and analysis. Advances in automation and analytics can be used to improve safety by removing workers from harm’s way, providing more information about machinery and optimising processes. That’s the good news.

On the other hand, the smart factory can also create some very new hazards for workers which if left un-checked or un-monitored can amplify the inherent dangers in manufacturing. Through efficient design, machines, in general, are shrinking in size. A smaller machine footprint means operations managers can pack more production capacity into less real estate. But, this savings on floor space comes with the added risk of putting workers in close proximity to machines, introducing new dangers.

Beyond entanglement or crush type dangers, being closer to machines creates other risks to individual workers. Recently, manufacturer, Fujitsu, has started monitoring individuals that work in close proximity to machinery for heat stroke and other stressors. It stands to reason that production environments with higher machine counts in smaller spaces may compound waste product, toxins, and fumes per square foot and be hotter, noisier and more stressful. These factors potentially impact both the physical and mental wellness of employees, if monitoring and other safety protocols are not in place.

Smaller machines also open the door for more adaptable production areas. Rapid reconfiguration of machines, workflows or the physical location of equipment can pose multiple safety challenges. The number of configurations is limitless, and each will likely require its own safety assessment to keep workers safe and be compliant with regulations at all levels.

Safety through adaptation

Imagine you oversee the PET beverage bottle labelling system for a beverage manufacturer. The system is designed to handle 12oz to 2 liter bottled water or similar containers. The multi-stage operation requires un-labelled bottles to enter a restricted zone without human intervention. The infeed and outfeed to this area are automated to create an efficient workflow.

While your line typically runs without issue, there’s a human component to the production process which includes an overriding desire by workers to “make the rate”—even if that means pushing the line beyond “efficient” and safe parameters or intervening manually in some fashion. As a result, despite training, poor choices are regularly made.

Efficient operations also need to be safe operations. While the bottle rate has an inherent impact on the operating efficiency of the plant and the cost of the individual unit, it does not account for the jam or shutdown that happened farther up the line. Systems feedback should provide clarity on where protocols and expectations may need to be changed or adapted to accommodate production variables.

Utilising standardised safety equipment means manufacturers can reconfigure a line and still maintain safety. For instance, some manufacturers using welding information management systems are gathering real-time data on safety factors like fume production. If required, operators can respond with mobile fume extraction systems that fit anywhere on the production line.

Connectivity plus data mining provides opportunities for enhancing safety Connected safety technology is here. Already, businesses can protect workers and achieve an advantage over their competitors by reducing many safety management-related costs. Connected safety infrastructure is part of the smart factory ecosystem.

By enabling safety managers to mine critical data, which provides insight Connected safety technology reduces the costs associated with worker absence, lawsuits, and regulatory violations.

While a challenge for safety professionals will be in managing the volumes of collected data effectively, data-driven safety monitoring and compliance processes result in a more comprehensive safety strategy. The data gathered from the connected plant can also lead to more productive relationships among personal protective equipment (PPE) suppliers, software and hardware developers and other providers as they collectively endeavour to keep factories and workers safe.

At the individual level, monitoring devices can track changes in worker behaviour and signal potential risks to safety.  Monitoring equipment can take many forms such as cameras or sensors that pass data to a central collection and control point. As it’s aggregated, the data highlights any dangerous behaviour such as a human operator moving into an unsafe area or positioning themselves too close to a particular piece of machinery. Armed with that intelligence, line managers can take corrective action.

Co-existence of autonomous machines and human workers

For a long time, robots have been admired in manufacturing settings for their ability to improve efficiency and undertake activities that may be too dangerous or too tedious for their human counterparts. Today, the idea of the robot has been replaced by autonomous machines that in themselves can be pieces of safety equipment. As smart factories continue to develop, and autonomous machines become easier to program the dichotomy of tasks between machines and humans is less clear. More and more, machine and man are working side-by-side in the manufacturing process. This model optimises manufacturing, but also introduces new hazards and challenges to safety.

To create a safe working environment, fortunately, robots and autonomous entities can be equipped with sensors and programming that can minimize dangers.  In some instances, robots armed with the right technology are reducing the risk of injury and increasing safety. For example, an auto guided vehicle (AGV), that moves palettes in the warehouse, when equipped with a pair of the right laser scanners can have a 360-degree zone of protection all times. When a human being enters its path, it can be programmed to stop or enact some other safety measure.

Deploying robots in a factory, means some of the burden of dangerous, dirty jobs or life-threatening tasks no longer rests entirely on humans. But, it’s important to remember that while robots are excellent for taking care of predictable, repetitive tasks, their very presence can introduce additional safety concerns like collisions with humans. While fail-safe systems are used, the success of these measures resides in the robot’s programming and the training of human employees.

Humans are still essential to the manufacturing process for making decisions based on abstract data as well as managing operations, programming, maintaining robots and training.

Assessing the safety environment

While safety in next-generation manufacturing incorporates some new factors, the approach to evaluating workplace risks generally remains the same. All manufacturing processes should be assessed, not just the known potential hazards. The environment, ergonomics, noise should all be kept in mind as well. Machines or equipment that needed physical guards in the past will likely still need those guards and should be assessed accordingly.

Ultimately a risk assessment is a process which helps identify:

  • Hazard potential
  • Severity of potential hazards
  • Frequency of exposure to hazards
  • Strategies to implement to minimise hazards and avoid harm

It is important to remember that the most vulnerable part of any manufacturing environment is the human element. No effort should be spared to keep employees safe. Comprehensive training and communication programs are critical to driving compliance with safety rules and regulations.

Manufacturing continues to be defined by advances in technology. Though it remains an area of comparatively low digitization, nearly every manufacturing vertical — from automobiles to electronics, to food — is affected. As timelines for technological advancement in each of those verticals will vary, understanding of safety considerations will have to keep pace.

Safety is also not something constrained to the largest manufacturers. All companies, regardless of size, should document safety procedures and protocols and look for opportunities to employ modern technology in their risk remediation efforts.

Considerations for Manufacturing OEMs Original equipment manufacturers must consider safety in developing machinery for the modern manufacturing environment. OEMs have the opportunity to build safety into their machinery. The array of safety technology that is available is staggering, and the OEM should endeavour to design and build equipment without compromise on safety. If one supplier does not have a sensor, light curtain or some other pieces of technology that provides an optimal “fit”, another source should be sought.

At a minimum, the OEM needs to consider the risk for all reasonably foreseeable use of (or misuse of) the equipment they are designing and building. They also have a responsibility to make customers aware of any risk associated with operating the equipment.

Understand the factors to know where to invest Today, successful companies and managers understand the importance of safety. According to a 2017 Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index, workplace injuries and accidents that cause employees to miss six or more days of work cost U.S. employers $59.9 billion. With potential costs like that, it’s easy to understand how an investment in safety might easily translate into triple-digit returns for manufacturers.

Most companies wouldn’t think twice about spending $15,000 on a new piece of equipment that lowered annual costs by twice that much. The same thinking can and should be applied to safety on the manufacturing floor. In fact, over the last two decades, multiple studies have shown that every dollar committed to safety yields a return on investment (ROI) between two and six times the initial cost. The challenge is knowing where to make that investment by understanding the factors to safety that create difficulties in the modern manufacturing environment.

About Datalogic

Datalogic is a global technology leader in the automatic data capture and process automation markets. It specializes in the design and production of bar code readers, mobile computers and laser marking systems. For more than 45 years, the company has also been focused on delivering products that advance safety in the manufacturing environment. Datalogic offers a complete line of type 2 and type 4 safety light curtains for machine safeguarding and access control in dangerous areas and provides the widest range of photoelectric sensors for universal and application-specific purposes.

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