As autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) make their way into factories and warehouses around the world, safety is becoming more important.
Research and advisory firm LogisticsIQ expects the warehouse automation market to increase more than two times over, from $13 billion in 2018 to $27 billion by 2025. Several high-profile deals involving AMR companies took place last year as well. Amazon acquired Canvas Technology for an unspecified amount, Shopify acquired 6 River Systems for $450 million, and Teradyne acquired AutoGuide for $165 million.
The massive expansion of the market means that more robots will be entering the workplace and working alongside humans very soon—if they aren’t already there. Some AMRs are used to transport goods inside a facility, replacing conveyor belt lines and conventional automated guided vehicles (AGVs). Other AMRs include goods-to-person AMRs, which transport racks, shelves, or cartons of goods to manned picking stations; and automated lift trucks and forklifts.
For those that are responsible for safely and securely deploying AMRs, safety considerations are likely to be a major concern. The swift evolution of the technology means that safety standards have lagged behind—but they’re catching up.
For instance, one of the safety standards that applies to AMRs is R15.06 (“American National Standard for Industrial Robots and Robot Systems-Safety Standards”). This was last updated in 2012, but an update to this standard, R15.08, is forthcoming.
Other recently revised standards that apply to AMRs include:
- ANSI/ITSDF B56.5-2019 – “Safety Standard for Driverless, Automatic Guided Industrial Vehicles and Automated Functions of Manned Industrial Vehicles,” released in 2019.
- ISO 3691-4:2020 – “Industrial trucks – Safety requirements and verification – Part 4: Driverless industrial trucks and their systems,” released in February 2020.
Operators of AMR fleets need to stay informed about these developments.
To make sure that AMRs are deployed as safely as possible, there are some general guidelines that can be followed, and some issues companies should keep in mind. Here are a few of the most important things to pay attention to when deploying AMRs.
Take Care of Maintenance Issues Early and Often
Since many AMRs are deployed in warehouses or factories, it is not uncommon for them to accumulate some layer of dust and debris quickly. Because these robots use sensors and other technologies to help them navigate warehouse and factory floors, regular maintenance is essential to ensure they remain in safe working condition.
Errors and accidents can be avoided by staying on top of regular maintenance of sensors, LiDAR (light detection and ranging), and safety lights, along with any moving parts. Sensors and lights can be damaged with regular use, either just from general wear and tear or from an accident on the floor.
Though many repairs can be done quickly and “on the fly,” permanent fixes must be performed as soon as possible. Following a regular maintenance schedule will help ensure that all AMRs in a fleet are performing at top capacity and that they will not increase safety risks to the employees working alongside them. It’s also essential to keep the warehouse floor clean and to ensure that barcodes and other location sensors are clean and unobscured.
Establishing a regular maintenance program is the best course. Experts generally recommend a program of either semi-annual or quarterly maintenance, where the robots are cleaned and systematically checked for a variety of issues, temporary repairs can be fixed properly, and any large repairs are made. This will help to ensure the longevity and continued safety of your AMR fleet.
There is no way to guarantee that an AMR fleet will perform adequately unless you perform sufficient testing with the fleet and human employees. Simulations are not enough, especially when compared to working alongside these machines in a real factory or warehouse.
Plan on doing enough testing with employees and with the full fleet to ensure the safety features are working correctly and that the integration of these machines into your workplace meets your expectations. Simply setting loose a team of robots without proper training and testing is not going to give you the results you desire.
Safety Is a Broad Category
When considering the safety of AMRs, the first concerns are generally regarding their speed, ability to detect obstacles, maneuverability, and ability to stop quickly. However, there are many more safety issues than just these alone. Be sure to consider other safety issues, such as the robots’ charging system. If your robots are not charging correctly—if they are undercharging or overcharging—you could be putting the company at risk for a potentially dangerous situation. Improperly maintained charging units or batteries could conceivably start a fire that might cause significant destruction in a factory or warehouse.
Cybersecurity is another important concern with robotics. Companies should take precautions to ensure that their fleet is secure from hacking or reprogramming interference from outside sources. Thankfully, many manufacturers provide these types of cybersecurity protections, but it is still important for companies and any employees that work directly alongside the robots to understand security protocols and be able to recognize potential issues quickly.
Map Your Facility
One of the first things you should do to ensure safety with a fleet of AMRs is to map your facility. Look for obstructions, uneven surfaces, and anything else that might compromise the safety of your employees and the efficiency of your robot fleet. This relates to another important precaution that needs to happen before you deploy AMRs: a facilities assessment. AMR vendors will help you perform this vital step and create a rollout strategy to incorporate AMRs into your operations safely and without disrupting workflows.
It’s important to consider safety when adopting any new technology, especially in a warehouse, where there may be more physical hazards than other work environments. Failing to consider safety results in accidents, hampers productivity, and leaves employers vulnerable to lawsuits and regulatory violations.
Fortunately, safety is one area where AMRs can help: these robots can take over jobs that may be risky for humans. Looking at accident report logs during the initial facilities assessment can help companies figure out where AMRs might be deployed to increase worker safety.
Workers, of course, play a key role in their own safety as well. That’s why education, training, and real-world testing are so important during the deployment of an AMR fleet. However, if workers are consistently confused by AMRs—for example, if there are frequent questions like “What is this robot doing?”—this might mean the interface and design are not intuitive. Human-AMR interactions should be seamless. Keep this in mind when selecting an AMR vendor.