Safety first: How Industry 4.0 can optimise safety

05 June 2017

Andrew Minturn discusses the role of the human in Industry 4.0 and how to ensure safety.

Industry 4.0, a buzzword derived from Germany, is set to redefine the current working environment. This new era of industry can be visualised as a highly adaptable workspace, able to react and respond to changing customer requirements almost instantly. Based on information generated and stored, individual production lines can help to transform operations simply and effectively. 

It is inevitable that automation is primarily associated with Industry 4.0. However, it is crucial that there is a clear recognition that the role of people in the production will never be redundant. In fact, one of the main beliefs of Industry 4.0 is that people are the key players. Connectivity between humans and machine, with the integration of IT, is fundamental to the success of Industry 4.0.

In a traditional production environment, with lines or cells frequently geared to the manufacture of a single product, the safety of those working in the facility is generally straightforward to monitor. A risk assessment of all aspects of the operation – from individual components through to operator ‘touch points’ with equipment – will create a guide which in theory should remain valid until the use of that line changes or alterations are made to the equipment within it. Immediate hazards can be minimised and risks to operator safety averted, as long as correct procedures are followed.

However, a plant operating under Industry 4.0 principles potentially presents a very different and more intricate set of challenges. Reconfiguration of production areas at short notice, involving the rapid changes of tooling and even the physical movement of equipment, can pose a range of safety challenges, while the sheer number of configurations achievable to meet potential requirements may entail a separate risk assessment for each. Yet, with another of the key features of Industry 4.0 being the safety of personnel and data under a secure value-creation network, these considerations cannot be ignored if compliance with local, national and international regulations is to be maintained.

Fortunately there are a variety of technologies available to counter these issues – and it is no exaggeration to say that Industry 4.0 offers the opportunity to increase safety further due to the ability to gather data in real time and then act upon it before a potential hazard becomes a real one.

For example, a range of devices can be fitted onto equipment capable of detecting and reporting operator behaviour which may pose a risk to safety. This equipment can take a number of forms; among the most common are intelligent cameras which gather digital images or footage and pass these to a central control point, automatically highlighting any abnormal behaviours such as entry into a restricted area. Many systems designers also opt to equip their machines with safety sensing devices which can immediately sense if a human operator has moved into an unsafe area or positioned themselves too close to a particular piece of plant. In such instances, the default response is usually to power down the machine or, in the case of a collaborative robot, to slow down to a safe speed, allowing the individual time to move away from the hazard. 

Level of risk
The decision on which device to use depends primarily on the level of risk involved. This type of feature is also beneficial when equipment has to be moved, for example, previously a machine would need to have all its guards in place and be completely switched off before any action could be taken. Given that there will always be a desire to avoid switching off machines completely to avoid additional warm-up times and quality issues with first-off components, this is a major advantage in the dynamic production environments associated with Industry 4.0. 

Meanwhile, many Industry 4.0-compatible technologies now have additional safety features built into them, rather than having to be added afterwards. One example is Industry 4.0 compatible drives which can be used to create a machine protocol with a unique number, highlighting immediately a potential safety issue if a different protocol is used.

A further technology which has become commonplace in Industry 4.0 environments is the dedicated safety protocol. There are a number of these on the market – openSAFETY, SERCOS and ProfiNet to name but a few – with all common bus systems now having a safety version. All have been designed as an advance on older wire-based systems for powering down and enable a greater flow of information to ensure uptime is maximised and that equipment only powers down as a last resort. An alternative to these is a safety zone module which continuously check wires and negates the need to invest in a separate safety bus system in certain applications.

Risk assessment
While these features are beneficial, it must be remembered that the basic tenets of sound health & safety practice must still be adhered to. A risk assessment of every scenario likely to be encountered (effectively, any machine configuration which can be selected) must be undertaken, with operatives receiving the necessary training to work effectively in this more dynamic environment. Applications which have always needed physical guards around them will continue to need the same level of protection – the most unpredictable and vulnerable aspect of any manufacturing environment has always been and remains the individual people working within it and no effort should be spared in protecting them irrespective of the manufacturing processes adopted.

While individual system components may be considered to be ‘safe’, it may be a very different story when considering their use in combination. Applying this to an Industry 4.0 environment, one example could be the added requirement to programme alternative routes for autonomous or robotic equipment that experiences an obstacle on its route around the facility. This anticipatory consideration may be seen to go beyond traditional production environments. It highlights the need for health & safety personnel to receive the necessary training to truly understand the ethos and capabilities of Industry 4.0. By working together with component suppliers and safety-qualified engineers, achieving a safe, Industry 4.0 compliant production environment is an easy target.

Andrew Minturn is product manager at Bosch Rexroth.

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