Case loading specialist Brillopak and industrial automation pioneer Omron explore how smart robots, hardware and software can be deployed to work collaboratively, safely and productively alongside human counterparts in food production environments.
The benefits of automation when it comes to workforce health and safety are uncontended. From eliminating arduous and repetitive tasks to working uninterrupted within inhospitable chilled settings, robots are most certainly the future. However, the picture frequently painted with Industry 4.0 is a lights-out factory – a completely automated smart factory, requiring no human intervention. For many, this doesn’t represent a practical implementation of Industry 4.0 at all. Operators and maintenance staff are going to be key elements of any Industry 4.0 smart factory installation well into the future, and that in turn means that safety continues to be a vital consideration.
For packing operations commencing their Industry 4.0 journey, the issue is not so much one of removing people from the plant floor as implementing systems where people work in harmony and safely with the processes.
Brillopak director David Jahn explains: “Health & Safety should never be an afterthought. To work safer and achieve greater productivity, it is critical that factories take a strategic view of the legal and operational requirements at the outset. Automated packing, case loading and palletising machines should always be designed around safety rather than designed for a function and then bolting on a safety system later on in the manufacturing or testing process.”
Putting into context a typical packing scenario, David says many ‘stop-start’ activities can treble production downtime and eat into OEE. If the restart process from a controlled or emergency stop is not logical, fast and straightforward, this too encourages reckless behaviour among machine operatives, who typically bypass safety measures to get a machine up and running again.
Suggesting that safety systems in the future could be all but invisible to operators and maintenance personnel, Dan Rossek from Omron concurs saying: “People in the future will have no reason to try to defeat the safety technologies because they are no longer slowing them down.”
Collaboration between hardware and software
The term ‘integrated safety’ has become a somewhat overused and misapplied phrase in recent years, with many considering it to be simply the ability for the safety network to exchange data with the standard control network. “Truly integrated safety fully embeds the safety aspect as part of the wider control system: safety controllers and safety I/O can be freely distributed around the standard I/O, with a single environment for configuration, programming and maintenance,” says Dan.
Recognising the importance of safety within the truly collaborative machine, Omron has fully embedded safety within its Sysmac automation platform, making it easier for machine builders like Brillopak to implement safety functionality from the outset rather than as a costly and inflexible bolt-on at the end of the design process. The result – safety is no longer a roadblock within the design process.
As manufacturing and packing requirements evolve, so too do productivity and safety challenges. The ability to react swiftly and easily to legislative changes and take advantage of new technologies will be a critical market of success in tomorrow’s smart factories. “Taking a purely hardware based response to safety has physical and conceptual limitations,” suggests Dan. “Fixed and inflexible hardware systems can end up working against the legislation, while properly integrated safety technologies allow designers to more easily react to changes.”
Collaborative safety lays down an important marker on the path to Industry 4.0. Yet, it requires a change of mindset to machine design. For Brillopak, it defines a new era where automated machines and operators work in harmony, and where safety design has a genuinely positive impact on productivity. Dan agrees, concluding that taking a fully integrated approach to safety is not a hindrance to innovation at all. “The automation platform is what makes it all possible.”