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Robotics: a future view of workplace safety.

Robotics: A Future View Of Workplace Safety

In the early 1940s Isaac Asimov set down the three laws of robotics in his book "I, Robot." These laws were designed to calm the human fears of robots. They read: "A robot may not injure a human or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; a robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the first law; a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second law."

Adding intrigue to his science fiction fantasy is a footnote he wrote: "And of course there are glitches!" With this, his human characters began to fear robots and would not let them live on earth. As such, Mr. Asimov created a science-fiction playground in outer space where robots mine minerals and drive space vehicles.

People had a healthy fear of Mr. Asimov's robots. Although modern industrial robots are different, they can also be hazardous. Certainly, today's industrial robots have inherent dangers; but with good planning, heads-up programming and conscientious safety reviews, they can be put to good use. They can serve as both the helpers and the workers as intended in the author's fictional world.

Modern robotic applications can serve and improve manufacturing workplaces, especially in the health and safety area. For one, today's industrial robots can replace workers in potentially harmful environments. And the robots of tomorrow will be even more sophisticated, smarter and safer. Indeed, safety managers must learn to apply robotics to their operations to remain competitive now and in the 21st century.

Where Robots Fit In

The use of robots in production operations has increased dramatically over the years. In 1970 there were approximately 200 robots in use in the United States. By 1982 that number jumped to 4,000. By 1990 it is predicted that there will be around 32,000 robots in the U.S. workplace, with almost 21,000 of them in the auto industry alone.

As laborsaving and production improvement devises, robots have found their place in today's manufacturing centers. In the broad sense, they are the outcome of flexible automation, a new technology that evolved from the development of the computer. Flexible automation can be contrasted to hard automation because the control is in the software rather than the hardware. To change machine functions or sequences with hard automation, tooling must be changed and fixtures rebuilt. With soft automation, a change requires new instructions or programs to be entered into the microprocessor. Downtime is thereby reduced, labor saved and accurate work performed.

Robotics holds great potential in hard-automation processes and labor-intensive production operations. The biggest benefit in removing a worker from a potentially harmful exposure is the immediate improvement of worker health and safety. Typical robot applications include material handling, including press loading and unloading, palletizing and stacking; spot and seam welding; machining, grinding, wire brushing and sanding; spray painting; assembling; and testing and inspection.

Complex tasks require sophisticated hardware and software. This is why the early and most successful uses of robots have been in simple jobs such as material handling. Additional robot applications are seen in welding and spray painting due to its ability to increase payback potentials and worker safety.

Are robots not safety devices themselves? Indeed, robots take workers out of hazardous environments and relieve them of repetitious, tedious heavy material-handling tasks. For example, in welding operations robots can easily reach into power presses or handle large hot parts from die-casting machines. Furthermore, they work more effectively in such hostile environments with as little as 2 percent downtime.

What Is a Robot?

The Robot Institute of America defines a robot as a "reprogrammable, multifunctional manipulator designed to move material, parts, tools or specialized devices through variable programmed motion for the performance of a variety of tasks." Simply stated, a robot is a mechanical manipulator used to do work, is controlled by electronic feedback and is highly reprogrammable. The chief difference between hard automation and robots is the feedback control that allows the robot to be "intelligent" and perform work through its own recognition capabilities.

In short, as Characteristics of a Robot outlines on the following page, for the machine to be considered a robot, it must be reprogrammable; capable of operating on its own automatically; able to perform many dissimilar tasks; and capable of more than four axes of movement.

Robots fill the gap between hard automation and flexible human labor by turning demanding tasks over to machines. They increase human productivity and improve safety by putting the employee in control of the task rather than submitting him or her to the danger of being part of it.

A Job Well Done

"Let the robot do the dirty work" could be the motto of the health and safety professional. From his or her standpoint, the benefit of robots is derived mainly from exempting the employee from tasks where exposure can be harmful. The economic return is cost savings in salaries and benefits as well as improved productivity, quality and utilization of materials from reduced scrap and waste. The key to selecting a task for a robot is to identify all heat- and labor-intensive jobs and the dirty and hazardous operations. Robots are also ideally suited for tasks requiring high-volume production, repetitiveness and extreme accuracy.

A robot is capable of handling forgings and castings, tasks that expose workers to many hazards. Imagine an employee working near 2,000 F forgings or 3,000 F molten metals in a noisy shop.

These materials must be handled while in a forge hammer with tongs or by hand. Ladles are often hand-carried with the aid of trollies to pour molten metal into the molds. As a result, workers are exposed to hot parts, molten metal, temperature extremes, noise, metal fumes and smoke from dye lubricants and vanishing cores.

Automating these processes with robots removes the worker from the exposures. He or she would be able to observe the operations from a control room with air-conditioning and sound insulation. When these machines require hands-on attention, the processes can be stopped.

Spray painting is another hazardous task. Its exposures include solvent vapors, paint pigments such as chrome and lead, particulates and mists, fire and explosions and repetitive tasks from handling the spray gun. Similar to forgings and castings, this task can also be monitored from a remote location.

Assembly work presents employees with unique problems. A common one is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, a repetitive motion injury that can lead to permanent hand disabilities. Likewise, assembly work requiring the use of hand-held power tools that transmit vibrations can lead to Raynaud's Syndrome, also known as white knuckle syndrome, which is caused by the disturbance of blood flow to hands and fingers. Less serious injuries such as sprains and strains can result from job stress and/or poorly designed work stations that do not take into account the principles of ergonomics. Not only is a robot capable of performing these tasks without the risk of sustaining injury, but workers can remain in the area without special protection.

Robots are well-suited for welding operations involving the processing of similar products. The automotive industry, for example, spot welds automobiles on a moving assembly line. Known as the turkey farm, this line uses robots with spot-welding end-effectors programmed to weld in a predetermined sequence. Observed in a whimsical sense, the robots look like turkeys feeding as they bend over to perform their tasks. Some of the hazards workers avoid are smoke, fume, particulates, heat stress, ultraviolet flash, hot sparks, manipulating heavy parts and convoluted body stances while positioning the welding device.

Processing radioactive materials is another area where robotics can be applied. In a uranium reprocessing plant or nuclear facility, enriched uranium pellets the size of cigarettes must be loaded into a 6-foot-long tube. Medical facilities often require workers to handle radioactive isotopes of iodine. Both of these tasks can be accomplished with a high degree of safety using robots.

The Next Frontier

A limited imagination is the only obstacle preventing someone from applying robotics and flexible-automation technology to their work environment. Today, robots can be counted on for a wide range of tasks performed by people. Security guard sentry duty can be accomplished by robots. Robots can also test and monitor confined spaces, and can even monitor asbestos removal.

Safety managers should educate themselves on robotics and learn more about their capacity and limitations. Try to get in early on the design and applications procedures to better assure that robotics are properly safeguarded. Be sure that operating and maintenance procedures also incorporate suitable safeguards. Finally, safety managers should review the software program for adequate control safeguards.

Just as Mr. Asimov relied on engineers and designers to ensure that his robotics laws were not violated, the safety manager too should influence that process to better enable robotics to improve safety in the workplace.

George W. Pearson, CSP, is the corporate safety, manager for Albright & Wilson Americas, a specialty chemical company in Richmond, VA. He is also on the adjunct faculty of Virginia Commonwealth University. This article is adapted from Professional Safety, a publication of the American Society of Safety Engineers.
COPYRIGHT 1990 Risk Management Society Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related information on characteristics of a robot
Author:Pearson, George W.
Publication:Risk Management
Date:Oct 1, 1990
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