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Are Cobots Inherently Safe?

nigel smith Managing Director TM Robotics Inc.
By Nigel Smith Managing Director, TM Robotics Inc.

The “Global Robotics Report 2019” found that 79 percent of automation distributors do not believe their customers understand the safety requirements of installing a collaborative robot, or cobot. Because cobots are one of the fastest growing sectors of the robot market, this lack of knowledge could be dangerous.

Collaborative robots have been heavily marketed as needing no guarding and being able to work alongside humans. However, while there are significant differences between cobots and traditional industrial robots, the industry does not acknowledge cobots as a separate entity. Cobots are subject to the same safety regulations as traditional robot variations—such as SCARA, six-axis and Cartesian models.

Robots for use in manufacturing are subject to two distinct standards, ISO 10218-1:2011 Robots and Robotic Devices-Safety Requirements for Industrial Robots; and ISO 10218-2:2011-Part 2: Robot Systems and Integration. At present, no comprehensive standard has been developed exclusively for the safety of collaborative robots, but there is plenty of guidance available.

Cobot end users should adhere to the most relevant published guidance contained in ISO 10218 standards, a report entitled “Collision and Injury Criteria When Working with Collaborative Robots.” Additionally, a technical specification was released in February 2016, ISO/TS 15066, that provides safety guidelines for the use of robots in collaborative applications and determines guidelines for force limitation, maximum allowable robot power and speed.

There’s plenty of literature on the safety requirements of collaborative robots, but it is often overlooked. Many plant managers mistakenly assume that all cobots are automatically safe for use alongside their employees. Deploying a cobot safely requires a risk assessment that considers the risks that may occur while the robot is in operation, as well as when it is between tasks.

Cobots are often lightweight, portable and ideal for various tasks within a factory. The plant manager must assess how safety may be compromised when the cobot is, for example, being moved from one section of the production line to another. An assessment is also required for every separate activity and task the cobot will perform. For example, a risk assessment for a packaging application may find that, in order to operate at full speed and meet palletizing KPIs, safety fencing around the cobot is required.

Consider the Alternatives

Plants invest in automation to increase productivity and output. Therefore, reducing a cobot’s operating speed to remove the need for safety fencing may not make sense. Also, separating the robot from workers removes the entire nature of the machine, making it no longer collaborative.

In these instances, it is worth considering a traditional robot. Six-axis robots, for instance, have long been used to increase productivity in packaging applications. For many tasks in this application, there’s no real need for human interaction with the robot.

There’s no doubt that cobots have their place in the factory. In fact, reports suggest that the global cobot market will grow from $175.5 million in 2016 to $3.81 billion by 2021, and cobots can be a first step towards automated processes. However, as the results of the Global Robotics Report 2019 suggest, understanding of these machines and their safety requirements is lacking. To avoid hazards in the factory—and poor investments by end users—greater clarity on cobot safety in industrial applications is needed.

Note: In partnership with Toshiba Machine, TM Robotics Inc., Elk Grove Village, Illinois, offers three categories of robots; six-axis, SCARA, and Cartesian.

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