For modern businesses to become successful, it is imperative to continuously execute more and more tasks in a resource-constrained environment. However, while striving to cut costs and optimize production, companies should not overlook the basic principles and new trends in the field of labor protection.
Today occupational injuries place a heavy burden on every employer. According to an International Labor Organization (ILO) estimate, about 2.3 million women and men around the world annually become victims of industrial accidents or diseases caused by working conditions. As a result, about 6,000 deaths are registered every day. In most cases death is the result of diseases the employee got at work. For instance, hazardous substances, according to ILO estimates, cause more than 650,000 deaths per year.
A few decades ago, it was extremely costly for the company, and often even impossible from a technical point of view, to completely protect an employee from hazardous working conditions. The situation has been resolved partially with the development of robotic technologies.
At first, companies started using industrial robots to work in adverse environments or to perform tasks where human participation can be reduced to almost zero. The main areas of application were cargo handling, mining and assembly of products that do not require complex manipulations. One of the drawbacks of such robotic solutions for a long time was the need to set up complex units for each task. But presently, manufacturers produce self-learning robots with adaptive control systems.
Ralawise, a large UK distributor of clothing, handles thousands of boxes with goods every day in its warehouses. So the most common accidents are torn wounds from cutting tools that are used to open boxes and remove packaging. Last year, the company relied on an automatic box unpacking system and as a result the number of work injuries were reduced considerably and at the same time the operations picked up speed. Using sensors and photography, the robot measures the dimensions of each box and correctly places it on the stand before cutting it. Unpacking is going on according to the specifications set by the operator.
Along with the development of fully automated robots, collaborative robots (cobot) appeared in the market. These technical solutions are actively used in the automotive and electronics manufacturing. The devices work alongside with the person, performing the more dangerous and unhealthy parts of the production process. Also, collaborative robots are in demand in the pharmaceutical industry, since it is often difficult to install a large automated system within laboratories. In course of a research, employees of medical companies carry out manipulations with various kinds of chemical and biological substances in different conditions, which can often be dangerous to humans. Therefore, work with bio-hazardous substances is carried out by robots, and humans take over at later stages of study and testing of drugs.
A notable trend in the Cobot market is the development and implementation of wearable robots and exoskeletons. Mechanical devices are given the shape of the limbs, joints and muscles of the operator, while working with him in tandem, increasing his physical abilities and reducing fatigue and tension. This market is actively developing and there are a number of concepts of industrial exoskeleton, with different scope of application.
Automakers have been among the first ones to begin using Cobot solutions. In October 2018, Hyundai Motor Group announced the testing of its Hyundai Vest (H-VEX) exoskeleton, which reduces the pressure on the workers’ necks and backs. The vest was launched at the North American plant. Previously, Ford and BMW automobile companies had used these exoskeletons. This technological solution is also in demand in the construction industry, where it workers are required to carry a large weight. The reduction in number of injuries is not the only advantage of the technology, but the employees’ working age is also extended and older people can also be employed for the same work.
However, even the most advanced robots will not be able to create completely safe working conditions without a comprehensive labor protection system. The main players in the robotics market and a number of promising IT companies are already offering their own solutions. A number of industries that have always been considered conservative are expected to have active introduction of smart solutions to reduce the number of injuries and deaths among staff in the coming years.
Significant steps have been taken in the mining industry, where market leaders are striving to implement the idea of a “smart” mine. One example is the integrated solution by the VIST Group company (part of the Zyfra Group). It is an automated security management system called VG Safety.
A firm using an IT solution can analyze staff performance, check qualifications, and assess risks before each shift. Also, areas with violations and location of personnel are displayed on the map of the company on-line, while alerts about threats to employees appear in a special mobile application. The system allows you to form teams for complex or dangerous work automatically, taking into account the rating/competence of personnel. Technical solutions, such as Orlaco surveillance cameras, reduce injuries, increase mining safety and increase productivity through faster and safer maneuvers. Cameras warn drivers and machinists about approaching objects and obstacles in dead zones due to special radars and a 360-degree view. The condition of truck drivers is monitored by a special system that analyzes the degree of fatigue based on continuous analysis of facial expressions and pupils. Radar systems are used to prevent collapses during underground mining.
According to statistics from the Siberian Coal Energy Company, which uses VIST technology solutions, occupational injuries at the company’s enterprises decreased fourfold from 2006 to 2016.
The implementation of a big project with a large industrial player is the goal of many technology providers, but manufacturers should not focus only on the traditional areas of production and services that require robotization. Probably, in the near future, companies will pay more and more attention to create a comfortable and safe environment for their own employees.
At the moment, robot technology, for example, is being actively implemented in professional sports. American football coaches have been moving humanoid robots for practicing body-checks by the players. The trajectory of the robot is programmed from the control panel in order to simulate real game situations and to allow players work out the combinations better. Such know-how, according to experts, reduces the risk of injuries to athletes during the monotonous work with static dummies.
In the near future, robotics and smart technologies will be used not only by enterprises in developed countries, but also by players in emerging markets. Technology providers should not forget to diversify their products and make them more reliable.