Robots That Kill... And How to Stop Them

Aug 22, 2014

It is very important to set up proper safety mechanisms on your robotic system. There are a wide range of options available to make your safety environment completely safe for your workers including fencing, pressurized mats, and light curtains. Talk to experts today to figure out what the best options for your production line are.


From the first men­tion of the word robot” in the 1920s play RUR right up until the machines that dom­i­nate indus­try today, robots has been asso­ci­at­ed with slave labor’ or drudgery,’ as they should – the word lit­er­al­ly means just that.

While robots were made to help man, they are also large and dan­ger­ous met­al objects with speed and force that can kill a human, if that human is in the wrong place at the wrong time.

On Jan­u­ary 25, 1979, Robert Williams became first human fatal­i­ty caused by a robot. Williams was struck in the head by the met­al arm of a robot at the Ford plant in Flat Rock, Michi­gan. The mate­r­i­al han­dling robot had slowed its pro­duc­tion speed, and Williams climbed in to the work area of the robot, where he was struck and killed instantly.

Anoth­er inci­dent hap­pened two years lat­er in Japan when Ken­ji Ura­da climbed over a safe­ty fence to do main­te­nance on a robot with­out prop­er­ly shut­ting it down. The robot arm was still in oper­a­tion and acci­den­tal­ly pushed Ura­da into a grind­ing machine, killing him.

When look­ing at these inci­dents, as well as oth­er doc­u­ment­ed injuries and deaths due to indus­tri­al robots, you can see one com­mon theme – the deaths could have been avoid­ed. These robots do not kill out of mal­ice or revenge. In most cas­es, it is a mat­ter of unsafe work prac­tices around heavy, met­al, robot­ic machinery.

There have been many advance­ments that make the robots of today safer than those in the past, includ­ing the addi­tion of bet­ter safe­ty mech­a­nisms, bet­ter train­ing, new designs and bet­ter pre­ven­ta­tive maintenance.

Safe­ty mech­a­nisms keep humans at a safe dis­tance while the robot is in oper­a­tion. Many robots and robot­ic work­cells have some sort of safe­ty fenc­ing sur­round­ing the sys­tem that encom­pass­es the major­i­ty of the work area, keep­ing human work­ers out of the way of the robot arm.

In sev­er­al work­cells, safe­ty light cur­tains and pres­sur­ized mats are used to keep work­ers safe dur­ing appli­ca­tion oper­a­tion. When some­thing steps on the mat or cross­es the light beam of the cur­tain, the robot will stop the oper­a­tion until a safe dis­tance is again maintained.

A sim­i­lar pause or stop in oper­a­tion can be achieved by releas­ing the dead­man switch,” a switch that is in place to ensure the safe­ty of the work­ers dur­ing train­ing and man­u­al oper­a­tion modes. When pressed, it imme­di­ate­ly stops the robot for all actions, or in oth­er words, makes the robot dead.”

Train­ing has become extreme­ly improved over the past years. Engi­neers and robot tech­ni­cians are thor­ough­ly edu­cat­ed on how to oper­ate and run a robot sys­tem. There is no sub­sti­tute for good train­ing and safe­ty prac­tices. Know­ing how to oper­ate a robot prop­er­ly is cru­cial when work­ing with robot­ic systems. 

As robots become more com­mon, they also become more user-friend­ly, and giv­en the right amount of time, many peo­ple can be trained to safe­ly pro­gram and oper­ate a robot. The tech­nol­o­gy in robot­ic sys­tems is con­stant­ly improv­ing to make the oper­a­tions as safe and easy to under­stand as possible.

One huge advance­ment in tech­nol­o­gy have been the incor­po­ra­tion of vision sys­tems with robots. Robots can see” now. These vision-guid­ed sys­tems are pro­grammed to look at a part and be able to dis­tin­guish it from oth­er parts. Along with that, vision cam­eras are affixed on the pro­duc­tion lines to keep a close eye on qual­i­ty con­trol. These cam­eras can detect if a robot is hav­ing a prob­lem over and over with work pieces, and can poten­tial­ly detect whether the par­tic­u­lar robot needs adjust­ments or main­te­nance. Vision sys­tems have reshaped the way robots work and enhanced their qual­i­ty and per­for­mance substantially.

Every robot has a con­troller that func­tions as the robot’s brain.” This is where tech­ni­cians and engi­neers can pro­gram the robot to per­form appli­ca­tions. The con­troller lets the tech­ni­cians know if there is a prob­lem with the robot’s oper­a­tion, and all the cabling for the robot is run through the con­troller, which allows the tech­ni­cians to cut pow­er if there is a prob­lem or safe­ty issue.

Anoth­er robot inno­va­tion is the devel­op­ment of touch sen­sors. These sen­sors allow robots to feel.” With touch sen­sors, robots are able to sense how they are engag­ing with parts. While this improves the abil­i­ties of mate­r­i­al han­dling robots to manip­u­late parts, it also con­trols the force with which the robot oper­ates and how much pres­sure is applied dur­ing applications.

Robots also keep humans safe on the job. They per­form many jobs that are tedious, and even dan­ger­ous, for humans. Con­tin­ued lift­ing of heavy objects can cause seri­ous long-term injuries to a human body, while the same motion doesn’t faze a robot. With robots per­form­ing weld­ing appli­ca­tions, humans are kept at a safe dis­tance from the heat and tox­ic fumes that can be pro­duced dur­ing the process. Robots can even work in extreme heat and cold, like in foundries or freez­ers, allow­ing humans to stay out of such haz­ardous environments.

Pre­ven­ta­tive main­te­nance, such as hav­ing the robot prop­er­ly greased, the cables updat­ed and the parts up to date, is impor­tant to help keep a safe robot. When a robot is not prop­er­ly ser­viced, it can break down or act out unex­pect­ed­ly, espe­cial­ly if there are frays to wiring and cables. Tech­ni­cians need to make sure the robot is com­plete­ly pow­ered down before per­form­ing main­te­nance to avoid accidents.

Recent­ly, the Amer­i­can Nation­al Stan­dards Insti­tute approved new stan­dards that allow humans to work direct­ly with robots in a fac­to­ry set­ting, instead of hav­ing fix­tures, safe­ty pack­ages and turnta­bles sep­a­rat­ing them. Also, robots are being devel­oped with touch sen­sors that can sense an object in the area and slow down or stop before hit­ting the object. The advance­ment of tech­nol­o­gy and safe­ty fea­tures on indus­tri­al robots con­tin­ue to improve, mak­ing robots safer than ever. 

With all these safe­ty pre­cau­tions, train­ing, tech­nol­o­gy and stan­dards in place, it is easy to see that robots are becom­ing the oppo­site of dan­ger­ous — they have nev­er been safer! And real­ly, it’s not hard to stop them – their actions are com­plete­ly in the hands of those run­ning them – the human workers. 

By keep­ing up with safe­ty stan­dards, hav­ing the nec­es­sary safe­ty pack­ages, using advance­ments like vision, and keep­ing up with your pre­ven­ta­tive main­te­nance, robots can become one of your safest and most reli­able assets to improv­ing pro­duc­tion in your company.

For more infor­ma­tion, con­tact Robots​.com rep­re­sen­ta­tives online or at 8777626881.

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