Robots have been making their way into classrooms for the past 15 years, most commonly in community colleges and vocational schools, but now they’re becoming an essential part of STEM education from kindergarten through college and beyond.
Worldwide, schools spent around $146.5 million on robotics products and curriculum in 2018, and this amount is expected to increase annually by 28%, reaching $640 million by 2023. In fact, the University of Michigan just made a big investment in robotics with a brand-new undergraduate program launching this fall, making it the first program of its kind at a top 10 engineering school.
The growing use of robotics is aligned with the rise of automation in in-demand STEM fields such as manufacturing, automotive, aeronautics, smart agriculture, pharmaceuticals and healthcare. It’s estimated that 50% of the work activities people do today could be automated if we applied all existing technologies. This implies a substantial shift for workplaces in the not-too-distant future, requiring millions of people to upskill or switch occupations, as the service robotics and global industrial markets are predicted to reach $310 billion by 2025.
Clearly, the global robotics market is booming, but how equipped are schools and employers to incorporate robot safety awareness?
The importance of safety in Industry 4.0 for mobile and stationary robots
Industry 4.0 paved the way for robotic and overall system modularity, allowing robots to quickly perform different tasks and adapt to new conditions and the environment by dynamically tailoring themselves to various tasks and being redeployed on different duties as needed. The key to implementing these advanced methods has to do with the automation being smart enough to adapt to scenarios without much human intervention, meaning that the implementation of integrated solutions that have the ability to collect and analyze real-time and historical data will play a huge role. This is where robot safety becomes critical because the robot needs the ability to be recommissioned swiftly based upon new process demands or a change in the logistic schedule due to customer demand.
We no longer live in an era where only dull, dirty and dangerous repetitive tasks are done by robots. Now we also must be prepared to safely allow the robot to be on call when needed, which is why we call collaborative robots a “third hand” that would easily be deployed to work intelligently alongside humans based upon the application, that’s how collaborative smart manufacturing will become.
Real-time monitoring collaboration between humans and robots in shared work areas has reached higher demand than ever. While protective fencing to separate humans from machines has played a substantial role in safety, innovation is moving us toward an era where robotic systems with smarter sensors can maneuver around people more safely and intelligently. Adding more sensors generates more data from the robot. Data from the robot is then sent to the PLC which informs the entire industry system, allowing a whole systems approach to data-informed decision making for general day-to-day operations and predictive maintenance.
With real-time alerts, operations that fall outside of safety tolerances and compliance specifications should be caught and corrected immediately. Machine safety, threshold compliance, personnel health risks — alerts can be customized to immediately inform the correct person of any issue at any time. That person can then address the alert and maintain a real-time pulse on the issue. Hazard communication is streamlined and safety ownership is clarified, so all parts of the enterprise are aware of micro- and macro-compliance and safety issues.
In addition to safety and compliance awareness, real-time alerts improve overall connectivity and communication across both the local and global enterprise. With PLCs, OPC servers, sensors and other assets all connected and monitored through integrated alerts, anyone, anywhere can access everything. There should be no confusion about who saw what notification or who owns an alarm. Instant alerts enable holistic device-to-person communication—and alerts can even monitor that communication itself through connectivity-based notifications. This accurate and reliable communication system creates more accurate and reliable decision-making as well as assisting in ruling out the old mentality of the maintenance department chasing the red light. In this new era of technology, a rich data experience allows us to anticipate the red lights, reinforcing the term ‘smart maintenance’.
Teaching the 6-Steps Method
When workers are up-to-speed on safety, they’re in a much better position to approach things like change over and predictive maintenance while protecting the integrity of the entire system. The more information they have on the robot, the more they can predict and know what maintenance needs to be done.
Educators and employers have a big role to play in terms of adequately preparing workers to walk into factories of the future and hit the ground running. At Festo Didactic, we partnered with SICK to create a Safety Awareness Bundle that combines curriculum and hardware. The content of the curriculum focuses on robot risk assessments, in-depth data collection and dissemination, as well as the implementation of the whole system approach versus automation à la carte. The hardware consists of a Festo Didactic manufacturing production system (MPS), or the Cyber-Physical Smart Factory with six-axis robot, SICK area scanners, safety PLC and safety relay. Through SICK’s 6-Steps Method, students and professionals can learn how to identify hazards, quantify risks and achieve safe machinery.
Safety is the bottom line. When we talk about closing the skills gap in advanced manufacturing, safety might not be the first thing that comes to mind when listing out required skill sets. However, it's imperative to have a workforce that’s adept to risk assessment in order to prevent and mitigate hazards. Protecting machinery and personnel against accidents – reducing liability, but not productivity – should be top of mind for everyone, including the robots.