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Manufacturing Health & Safety with Autonomous Robots

Skilled labor is the most valuable “asset” in any production line. No manufacturer can realize high productivity and limited waste without skill and acumen to make the most of the resources – and systems – you have available.

Even as manufacturers go the extra mile to protect every member of their workforce, accidents still happen, while the underlying cost of manufacturing health and safety initiatives is no small cost on its own. A study by the Canadian Institute for Work & Health showed the average Ontario manufacturer spends more than $1500 per employee on health and safety initiatives. In the United States, injuries cost manufacturers nearly $8 billion in 2019, with nearly half of those injuries being musculo-skeletal (those that would involve muscle pain, damage or broken bones small and large).

Acute injuries are not the only risk to the workforce: one study in Britain showed that fully a third of manufacturing workers suffered from conditions like heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and asthma, while these conditions on average increased the occurrence of acute injuries between 12 and 25%. In many cases, the stress or environmental hazards of these jobs can be contributors to the occurence of these chronic conditions as well.

Whatever the cause of ill health, it’s critical that manufacturing firms consider how to best empower their employees and ensure they are in the best condition to succeed – both for themselves and their employer. With that in mind, here’s a reason to consider why injury and illness occur, what could possibly be the underlying cause, and how manufacturers can use autonomous robots to reset the conditions of their workforce and enable their workforce to achieve more than ever. 

Acute Causes of Injury

The most common causes of workplace injuries include lifting, dehydration, fatigue (and often subsequent inattention), as well as trips and falls. Environmental and social circumstances can also play a role, including poor lighting, hazardous materials, acts of violence and individual or group stress can also lead to the type of physically acute injuries that typified the early days of manufacturing, but have been much reduced ever since.

Given that many manufacturing workplaces are so proactive in creating a clean, manageable environment, how is it that these kinds of injuries still take place? One answer may be in the lack of a holistic approach. Manufacturing is an analytical field, run by engineers, innovators, free thinkers. It’s not always conducive to the nurturing team approach that can help prevent and maintain mindfulness of circumstances where an employee’s state may make accidents more likely to happen.

Workplace injuries can be avoided, but never entirely. Being mindful of their root causes is essential to minimizing their impact. Source: Travelers Insurance.

At the same time, there can be instances where a “team” may not feel much like one – stress and criticism could lead to a desire to outdo goals or go the extra mile. At the same time, small failures can lead to finger-pointing. According to Reliable Plant, some of the best steps to take here can be to change the way in which problems are run from departments to concepts – for instance, create improvement teams around the quality, productivity or total output of your production. 

Taking this kind of holistic approach can ensure that different operational and maintenance teams begin to view their challenges as one in the same, focusing on collaboration and analysis rather than the brute force and elbow grease that so often come to us as instinct – and so often put us at risk. 

Chronic Causes of Illness

Many manufacturers have already adopted these kinds of approaches. Given that this is not uncommon, we do clearly see manufacturing as safer and cleaner than it was 50 or 100 years ago.

However, chronic illnesses are still with us and perhaps more prevalent than ever. While chronic illness is rarely a strict result of working in a manufacturing environment – lifestyle, genetic and other factors are always in play – we can often tend to ignore the importance of these in the workplace.

Cardiovascular, respiratory and mental illness – including challenges like chronic stress – can all play a significant role in manufacturing health and safety. Taking ownership of these issues can still offer substantial benefits. Even if they are not necessarily a manufacturer’s responsibility, it’s still a matter of fact that they increase the possibility of acute workplace injuries – something that assuredly is a direct cost to employers.

What could these be? These could come from lifestyle factors such as smoking or poor diet, they could also come from traumatic personal events, or they could come from the employees emotional relationship with work and their response to the demands of a given day. 

Given the high median age of the manufacturing workforce, considering ways to alleviate the total costs of chronic disease in the workplace are essential to maintaining profitability. Source: Catapult Health.

Wellness programs can be the first step in addressing the chronic causes of injury. Incentivizing or actively helping employees to adopt improved lifestyle habits like quitting smoking, improving their diet, taking up heart-healthy exercise or simply improving the social support provided at work can all play their part in a wellness-based approach.

These kinds of programs have a global benefit when it comes to chronic stress as well. Stress is both caused by and exacerbates a fundamental disconnect between the ability of the brain and body to signal basic needs to one another like the desire for sleep, food, rest, or social interaction. In these circumstances, stress can exacerbate underlying cardiovascular, respiratory or mental illness to the extent of triggering chronic disease, while also triggering the fatigue, emotional decision making or absent-mindedness that leads to acute health and safety incidents.

Your wellness program doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition either. It can be as simple as programmed stretching, annual medicals, taking an interest in employees’ personal circumstances, communal eating (social distance notwithstanding) and initiatives that include family members in employees’ own personal health and lifestyle improvements. 

The Ego Depletion and the Role of Autonomous Robots

More manufacturers are recognizing the role that these global environmental and social factors play in maximizing the productivity, engagement and happiness of their workforce. However, where practical, emotional and human-resources-based approaches have already been exhausted as a means to reduce health and safety risks, technical solutions must be considered to fundamentally improve production workflows from a health and safety perspective.

In adopting technical solutions that overcome acute injury risks, the concept of “ego depletion” is useful to understand why they may happen and how to minimize them. The idea is as basic as this: we have a finite amount of “willpower” in the course of a day. The more we use this willpower to manage ourselves, work and maintain productivity, the less willpower we have available to manage our needs as the day goes on. We can improve our capacity for work over time, but as time goes on in a given day fatigue, impatience, frustration or inattentiveness can most often creep in.

In order to minimize the rate at which this “ego depletion” occurs, offloading the most laborious parts of your workflow to automated solutions can make the most impact while improving productivity. For many high-mix manufacturers, this may not yet be the case. While certain machines require more workers – e.g. a manual stamping machine, a welding torch or a paint gun – enabling workers to manage smarter versions of these machines is critical to augmenting their capacity and reducing total injury risks.

Autonomous robots are one of the smart machines that can achieve this outcome, even doing so while maintaining the existing safe and collaborative functions that cobots already offer. By automating a process without programming needs, they can function continuous even as parts or process constraints vary.

Autonomous Robots, powered by 3D Perception and AI, can work in unison on varied parts without the need to put skilled workers at risk.

At the same time, autonomous robots can reduce chronic health risks by removing or limiting the presence of skilled workers in hazardous environments. Conditions of high heat, light, speed, airborne respiratory hazards and repetitive strain can all increase the frequency with which injuries – and even chronic health conditions – take place. Wherever workers require protective equipment to get the job done, the risk of chronic illness further rises over time no matter how protective said equipment might be. The best resolution is to simply find ways to get the job done without putting people in harm’s way.

Powder coating is a great example of this. While powder coating equipment is designed to keep workers safe within a coating booth, the respiratory risks are such that it’s simply better if a worker never has to get in a booth to begin with. At the same time, existing automation systems simply can’t achieve the nuance and consistency of skilled workers on parts with complex shapes or small production runs. 

In this case, autonomous robots can serve as a proxy for skilled workers while the workers act in a supervisory role that is removed from physical and environmental risks. While autonomous robots can also augment the efficiency and productivity of human-supervised operations, it’s also critical to realize that those basic protective measures which humans relied on before – stuff as simple as protective suiting and masking – are sometimes the greatest health and safety costs of all. Shouldn’t there simply be a better way?

Certain industrial processes can produce tremendous benefits, but their basic method of execution don’t need to put people at risk. Source: PFOnline.

Augmenting Workers Beyond Injury Risk

Omnirobotic’s AutonomyOS™ allows existing industrial robots to become autonomous through the use of 3D perception and a software architecture designed to drive robots in real process time.

This technology currently supports industrial spray, coating and non-contact finishing processes, but the platform is robot and process-agnostic, meaning that in the future, many more processes can be achieved – even potentially with the same equipment.

Autonomous robots don’t just enable humans to work more safely, they improve process outputs and reduce rework. Above is data from a high-mix aerospace manufacturer using an autonomous paint robot, with the consistency robots are known for and none of the part variation limitations to be found.

It applies autonomy to robots much in the same way that a fully autonomous car would work. It SEES your parts in their environment, PLANS a unique robot motion according to your preferences and process parameters, and then EXECUTES that motion – with tool control and all – in real process time, and without the need for any added instructions as you change your parts or modify your workflow.

Bringing simplicity to robots is one of the last steps to making them more widespread. As many as 80% of manufacturing firms may be considered “High-Mix, Low-Volume”, meaning their part variation is too frequent or their batch sizes are too small to rely on traditional automation solutions. With autonomous robots, these limitations can finally be overcome – both for the betterment of their production processes, and the benefit of manufacturing health and safety as a whole.

With AutonomyOS™ and AutonomyStudio™, it’s never been easier to deploy an autonomous robotic system. Using 3D Perception with AI-based Task Planning and Motion Planning, manufacturing engineers and integrators can configure autonomous robotic systems for value-added processes that allow manufacturers to achieve more consistency and flexibility in production than ever before.

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