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Collaborative Applications: What You Need to Know

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You know the scenario. Someone in your organization just attended a seminar about a new collaborative technology. And now, they’ve asked you to help take the first steps toward implementation.

No doubt, robotic density and collaborative applications are gaining momentum across all manufacturing sectors. And as early adopters of robotic technology, the automotive industry is also among the first to extensively employ collaborative technologies on the plant floor.

But what do you need to know about deploying this technology at the outset?

First, keep in mind collaborative technologies extend beyond collaborative robots. A collaborative workspace is any safeguarded area where a human and a machine can perform tasks simultaneously during production operation.

Certainly collaborative robots are part of that equation. But so are automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and other applications that enable collaboration between people and machinery.

Frankly, collaborative human-machine interactions have been commonplace on automotive plant floors for quite some time. For example, your plant may already allow operators to load or unload parts from an autonomous conveyor while it is in motion or to load parts directly to a robot gripper.

But now more intimate interactions are increasingly enabled with smarter robotics, electric servos and sensors – and sophisticated safety technology.

It’s About Collaborative Value

Collaborative applications are fundamentally changing the way people and machinery interact – and they deliver extraordinary value to manufacturers.

A properly designed collaborative system can reduce the safe distance required between a person and the machine – or fundamentally change the way safe distance works. For example, slowing equipment as an operator approaches – rather than stopping it – may enable that operator to work safely and more productively in less space.

In addition to reducing floor space and fencing requirements – and improving labor efficiency – collaborative applications can improve operator ergonomics, reduce repetitive use injuries and more.

Beware of Common Misperceptions — and Oversimplification

As is the case with any new promising technology, expectations and reality are often misaligned when it comes to collaborative applications. Be wary if you hear an enthusiastic seminar presenter, salesperson – or your boss – make any of these claims:

  • “This solution is inherently safe.”
  • “It requires no guarding and represents no hazards.”
  • “You don’t need to do a risk assessment or risk analysis.”
  • “It’s industry-accepted – and a direct replacement for an operator.”
  • “No additional engineering is required.”
  • “Your workers will love it.”

These are just a few of the most common misperceptions currently circulating. There are others. What they have in common is an oversimplification of the inherent technology – and a misleading perception of current safety requirements, guidance and methods. 

Critical to Success: A Functional Safety Lifecycle Approach

The truth is, a successful collaborative application entails more than simply installing the latest robotic or motion technology – even when that technology includes built-in advanced safety functionality. Implementing a collaborative application requires a systematic approach, an understanding of current safety standards – and due diligence that demonstrates compliance. 

So what strategic framework can best help companies achieve these objectives?

Simply put, functional safety principles provide the guidance on how to capture the value of collaborative applications and implement systems in a safe and compliant manner.

At its core, functional safety takes a systematic lifecycle approach, beginning with a risk or hazard assessment of the application. It then moves through the specification of system requirements, the design, verification, installation and validation of the safety system, and finally, the maintenance, change management and continuous improvement of the system.

This model supports good design concepts throughout the life of the collaborative application – and represents the true integration of safety, safety standards, technologies and process design.

Learn more about how Rockwell Automation and FANUC are working together to help automotive manufacturers reap the benefits of collaborative applications and comply with safety standards. 

And stay tuned for an upcoming blog that will focus on unique plant floor challenges when workers respond and interact with robots on a psychological and emotional level. 

George Schuster
George Schuster
T�V-certified Functional Safety Expert (FSExp), Certified Functional Safety Engineer (CFSE), Rockwell Automation
George Schuster

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