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By James McKew
Automation and robotics are often credited for their increased productivity and efficiency. Various sectors, especially manufacturing, construction and automotive have relied heavily on industrial robots to achieve greater production output. Over the last 30 years, the capabilities of these large and bulky machines improved and transformed countless industrial processes. Built for sheer power and speed, the traditional industrial robots though powerful, presented safety risks to human workers.
In recent years, global economic uncertainties and unprecedented crisis have upended many aspects of life, from the way people live, and people’s outlook on work, to the incorporation of new business models. This also means that the factors that made a manufacturer successful historically have changed; the health and safety of employees have taken precedence over productivity and efficiency.
Reducing workplace injuries with cobots
According to the Workplace Safety and Health Report 2021 by the Ministry of Manpower, there was a total of 12,766 workplace injuries reported in Singapore last year. Compared to the 11,350 workplace injuries reported in 2020, there was an 11 per cent increase in the number of occupational injuries in 2021. In 2021, the top contributing sector/industry for major injuries in Singapore was the manufacturing sector with 141 major injuries, these figures are high and the effects of accidents in workplaces can be shocking to manufacturers. Hence, manufacturers have radically shifted to accommodate new employees’ needs and aim to provide employees with a safe working environment. The beliefs and factors that supported years of consistent growth may no longer be valid.
This is where collaborative robots, or cobots, come in. Collaborative automation is changing the landscape and empowering employees. Cobots are far from the dangerous equipment planted on factory floors. Unlike traditional industrial robots that require safety cages to keep employees out of the workspace, cobots are designed to work alongside human workers without safety cages (upon risk assessment). While people misunderstand that robots are dangerous, cobots have managed to unravel these misconceptions. Recognised as the perfect man-machine collaboration, cobots are safe enough to function around human workers.
For Koyo Electronics Industries, a manufacturer of electronic equipment based in Japan, safety is placed a high priority on the manufacturing floor. The UR cobots feature safety functions such as protective stops. With built-in safety features, the cobots can operate safely without the installation of safety fences. This was a decisive factor in the implementation of UR cobots at Koyo Electronics Industries.
Cobots boost capacity and job satisfaction
While preventing workplace accidents is imperative, nurturing employees’ well-being is crucial in creating workplace resilience. Performing monotonous repetitive tasks such as heavy-lifting, loading and unloading can lead to repetitive strain injuries. In this case, the deployment of cobots relieves human workers from the strenuous tasks, freeing them to work on higher-value tasks that require humans’ cognitive abilities.
This was the case for BTC Mold, a Taiwan-based “full-process” manufacturer of plastic injection moulds. Initially, large machines were deployed at its production line. However, the manufacturer was faced with ongoing problems such as noise pollution, and safety and space constraints caused by the traditional automated equipment. Despite adopting automation solutions, ensuring the well-being of employees remains optimal becomes a challenge for BTC Mold.
Before cobots were introduced, the packing of products was done manually; human workers were required to bend over when placing the products into boxes, causing joint pains and muscle aches after a prolonged period of time. The introduction of UR cobots relieves the workers from repetitive tasks, further reducing their risk of occupational accidents caused by extensive periods of hard labour. Now, 11 per cent of BTC’s Mold’s manufacturing processes are supported by UR cobots. The manufacturer has solved work environmental issues and created safe working conditions for employees with the introduction of cobots.
Manufacturing-related jobs often involve dull, dirty or dangerous tasks, potentially leading to workplace injuries and serious health complications. While workplace injuries may be deemed common in the manufacturing sector, such accidents can be significantly reduced. Collaborative automation has become increasingly capable of mitigating safety risks and improving employees’ well-being. Gone are the days when monotonous and repetitive tasks are conducted manually by humans. Cobots, the accessible automation option, is here to stay, offering a safe solution for manufacturers.
About the author: James McKew (pictured above) is the Regional Director of Asia-Pacific Universal Robots. This is an opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of this publication.
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