Making Collaborative Robots User Friendly

Collaborative robots are not safe just because they have a soft-rounded exterior. They are safe when their applications follow specific safety standards.

 

collaborative robots, Universal Robots, safety
Robert Nelso Shea explaining collabortive robot safety at the Pacific Design and Manufacturing conference in Anaheim, Calif.

Collaborative robots are designed to work closely with human co-workers. They can do the mind-numbing repetitive tasks or do tasks like grinding and welding that are dangerous for humans. They can also be used to lift heavy objects. Yet the safety of these robots is not just in their soft exteriors. The safety comes from industry standards that guide the applications these robots perform.

In the session, Safety First: Working on a Team with Fenceless Robots, at the Pacific Design and Manufacturing conference in Anaheim las week, Roberta Nelson Shea, global technical compliance officer at Universal Robots, explained the nature of collaborative robots and the tasks these robots perform. The work the robot performs has to be safe, not just the robot itself. “We’re talking about collaborative applications rather than collaborative robots. If the robot happen to be grabbing a knife because it’s cutting, the collaborative robot is not safe,” said Shea. “Robots get used for tasks that are dangerous for humans. Like grinders, the robot will manipulate the part. That keeps humans away from dangerous applications.”

Robots have long been deployed to do risky work such as painting and welding. These robot applications are kept apart from human workers, since the work in inherently dangerous. Collaborative robots are deployed to do benign work that is not likely to harm humans. “Using a robot makes the workplace less hazardous. The large robots are high risk. You get hit by a large robot and you’ll have a serious injury. The large systems are traditionally very complex,” said Shea. “In the collaborative world, the robots have much lower payloads. Half a kilo. They’re being used for work that is potentially risky, but mostly they’ve been used for tasks that are dull.”

Paper Cuts Are OK, Not Injuries

Safety standards have been developed to determine acceptable and unacceptable levels of human-robot contact. “When it is ok for a robot to touch a person? If surfaces are rounded and the surface is soft and the contact isn’t often, then it’s ok. It’s unacceptable to get injured by a robot, but we do get paper cuts. We expect that life has minor injuries. That’s just life,” said Shea. “Some robots have sensors to monitor for contact. If any of those robots get used with a knife, that’s not collaborative.”

Shea noted that common sense rules the logic behind the safety standards. “For risk assessment, you look at instances where you could have contact. You design the robot and tech it to act like a person would,” said Shea. “This is a matter of being sensible. Keep contact away from a person’s head. No clamping anywhere. Only clamping when the robot is actually touching the part it needs to touch.”

ISO/TS 15066: Robot Makers Making Safety Standards

Collaborative robots have their own safety standard, ISO/TS 15066. The standard specifies safety requirements for collaborative industrial robot systems and the work environment. The standard supplements the requirements and guidance on collaborative industrial robot operation given in ISO 10218‑1 and ISO 10218‑2.

 

 

Shea noted that the standard was developed by major collaborative robot producers, including Universal Robots, ABB, Rethink Robotics, KUKA, Fanuc, Denso Wave, and Yaskawa. It was developed as a consensus guideline agreed on by all participants. All of the products produced by  the participating companies can be installed to comply with the standard. “There are things we’re all learning as we go along. We’re working on how to make it easy. I saw one installation where the end was too sharp. So they used bubble wrap to soften the end,” said Shea. “Collaborative robots are still new. We’re still trying to figure out how to use them and use them safely. Mostly it’s common sense.”

 

Learn about the power of collaborative robots at the confernce session, The Reality of What's Possible with Collaborative Robots and What's Still in the Works in 2017, which will be held during Advanced Design & Manufacturing , March 29-30, 2017, in Cleveland. Register today!

 

Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 17 years, 15 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cyber security. For 10 years he was owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper.

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