Adopting industrial robots can be more complex than it seems at first glance. Robots come with many valuable benefits, but industrial facilities must be prepared for workplace challenges with robots. How do industrial plant leaders know their facility is ready for robotics?
Matching Robots and Automation Needs
The first step to preparing an industrial plant for robotics is understanding what needs the robots will meet. It’s essential to have a specific application in mind before pursuing a robotics integration. Otherwise, businesses can spend valuable time and money on a robot that isn’t right for their needs.
In this planning phase, focus first on what areas of operations need the most attention. Is there a particular part of the assembly line that is running inefficiently? Is a certain material being wasted more than others? Conduct a thorough operations analysis and check with team leaders and department heads to understand potential challenges and inefficiencies.
These challenges are often great opportunities for implementing robotics. Automation can resolve issues like resource waste or process bottlenecks. At the same time, a robot isn’t always the best solution. Consider how a robot would fit into the existing infrastructure before moving forward with the integration and pin down a few specific potential applications for a robotics integration. Keep these in mind during the search for the right robotic solution.
Shopping for the Right Robot
Remember that most robots are designed to be capable of performing specific yet widely useful tasks. An estimated 47.5% of robotics spending is on general-purpose robots. These robots are like mechanical arms with various tools that can attach to them. The same general-purpose robotic arm could move parts in a manufacturing facility or operate a screw gun in an assembly line.
This means searching for the right robot to fill a certain application doesn’t need to be overly nitpicky. The application for the robot should be specific, but keep an open mind when shopping for robotic solutions. A particular robot could be perfect for a business’s needs despite not being marketed for the application they have in mind.
Try to identify several robots that could be a good fit. In the early stages of planning, businesses should keep their options open. One robot might seem perfect initially, but others could perform better on the facility floor. Less apparent factors like user experience, safety features, security, and maintenance need significantly affect a robot’s effectiveness.
Implementing Safety Measures
With a few top robot candidates in mind, the next step is to analyze the industrial plant. Robots have many benefits but require some preparation and caution from businesses. Adequate safety measures are crucial to ensure no employees are hurt working around the new robot. Even small robots can pose a safety hazard.
Protecting employees from robot-related hazards takes two forms — precautions and mechanisms. Businesses must ensure they have taken enough precautions to minimize employee risk while providing emergency safety mechanisms.
Evaluating the Space
The first task in this process is evaluating risk. OSHA has extensive resources on hazard evaluation that offer a great place to start. Hazard evaluation is about identifying every possible accident around a piece of equipment. For instance, a robotic arm could swing out and hit a passing employee who may not be looking where they’re going. Accidents like these are all too common with industrial robots.
A thorough analysis of the facility floor is crucial to a successful hazard evaluation. The robot needs to fit in its intended space, and there needs to be room for maneuvering and safety barriers. If the robot obstructs a main walkway, it will cause safety issues. Precise measurements are crucial in this stage, but advanced tools like laser measurement can improve accuracy and simplify space evaluation.
Installing Safety Barriers
Once measurements are complete, facility leaders must decide what physical safety barriers would be ideal for the robot they’re considering. These should be ready to go before the robot is installed.
There are a variety of safety barrier options available today. For example, metal fencing has long been an effective barrier method for industrial robots. Smaller robots may be OK with strong plexiglass barriers, but others may need an entire room. Light curtains are an option for all robot sizes — these barriers use a light sensor to stop a robot automatically if anything crosses the light curtain.
Running a Pilot Program
A pilot program is a test run of robotic integration. Consider this the try-outs stage. Facility leaders have usually narrowed their possibilities to one or two robots. A pilot program is the last step before fully-fledged adoption.
Robot developers usually work closely with industrial businesses during a pilot program, helping with programming and installation. The most important part of this test run is monitoring and analysis. Facility leaders should make sure they have a way to record performance metrics before and during the pilot program. The only way to tell if a robot is effective is by comparing performance with and without the robot.
Interviewing employees before, during, and after the pilot program is also a good idea. Keep the pilot program to a small group and ask them what they thought of the robot’s performance and how safe they felt working around it. Were they more or less stressed when working with the robot? Did it make their job easier or harder?
These questions can shed light on the potential impact of a robot on the workplace at large. Employees’ opinions of a robot shouldn’t make or break its adoption, but they are vital when designing safety measures.
Training and Reskilling Employees
After a successful pilot program, industrial facilities can move forward with a fully-fledged robotic integration. Employees are crucial to the success of any robotics strategy. When facility leaders choose a robot to adopt permanently, they must ensure their workforce is prepared for the significant changes robots bring.
Training and reskilling for employees are necessary for industrial facilities to be fully ready for robotics. There are several ways to approach training today. For example, some robotics developers will offer training specific to their robots. If an industrial facility has a robotics expert on their staff already, it can design an internal training program to save some money.
Employee robotics training will only get more critical in the years ahead as more and more businesses adopt robotics. Investing in training now will help futureproof the workforce. Plus, it allows industrial facilities to equip people with the exact skills needed to operate the robots the facility is adopting.
Additionally, it may be necessary to reskill or upskill some employees. Industrial robots often take over mundane jobs humans were previously performing. Rather than firing these people, find new roles for them. This is an excellent opportunity to train employees to become robotics technicians, programmers, or operators.
Along with skills training, all employees should get robotics safety training. The reality is every person working in the same facility as an industrial robot is at some risk of potential robot-related injury. So, robot safety training should be mandatory for all employees, not just those working directly with the robot.
Robot safety training should cover the essentials of risk-free interaction with a robot. For example, if a robot is in operation, avoid its safety barrier or any area markings on the floor. Additionally, every employee should know where to find emergency stop buttons on the new robots and how to activate those controls.
Make sure to post the emergency contact information of the facility robotics leaders, as well. If something goes wrong with one of the robots, employees must know who to contact for help. It’s also a good idea to inform everyone about the locations of first aid kits around the workplace for use in medical emergencies.
Getting Started With Industrial Robots
Adopting industrial robots in industrial plants can come with some fantastic benefits. However, preparation is necessary beforehand to ensure the robotic integration is successful. Facility leaders must thoroughly research to ensure they invest in the right robot. A pilot program helps confirm that a robot is a good fit.
Before installation, businesses also need to prioritize their employees. Safety and skills should be a top concern when adopting a new robot. Ensure people know how to work safely around the robot and have the right skills to operate it successfully. With enough preparation, any industrial facility can evolve its operations with robotics.