With the advent of Industry 4.0, and the smart revolution that's taking place in all aspects of our lives, the rate of change has become much greater. The techniques required to keep up are correspondingly more complex.
Safety in Industry 4.0 is not just about keeping people safe while operating machines. It's about introducing new practices that guarantee the safe interaction of humans and machines. Machines themselves are being designed with more safeguards, both in their physical build and in their control systems, requiring a constant intake of information about their use. Both owners and end users of complex industrial systems must be informed, trained and continuously updated about changes in these technologies, especially when it comes to integrating new elements into an existing system.
Instituting an entire new automated system is essentially a design challenge, but most industries will be looking instead at gradual upgrades to existing plant. This means that safety must be reconsidered in the light of new modes of working, as well as in the operation of the machinery itself.
The rapid cultural changes resulting from emerging technologies are demanding an entirely new safety strategy, and it may well be necessary to appoint in-house personnel who are specifically dedicated to this issue. Most companies will need to field an IT department who can devote more time to safety challenges – and to networking via workshops, conferences and forums in order to keep up to the minute on developments. Alternatively, it may make more strategic sense to outsource safety efforts to professionals who are familiar with new products and systems. Safety records such as past accident data can be analysed. This can help to show which new technologies can be adopted to reduce the severity and number of potential accidents. Risk assessments can be carried out on new installations or upgrades.
Collaborative robots, or cobots, represent the new generation of industry that is assisted by artificial intelligence, and are specifically designed to work closely with human beings. This feature of Industry 4.0 is increasingly common in the factory environment, and has brought with it corresponding new safety solutions. Collaborative AI concepts eliminate the previously required combination of safety devices, such as position switches, safety relays and light curtains. Instead, advanced electronics allow robots and humans to work safely and simultaneously using inbuilt safety features. These combine the flexibility and intuitive responses of human beings with the speed, strength and precision of robots.
Changes in safe factory environments also include proximity sensors for vehicles, and worker wearables, including smart PPE. AI-enhanced personal protective equipment adds electronic components or enhanced materials to traditional helmets, eyewear, footwear, gloves, and more. Smart PPE can collect and monitor continuous data on the work environment, the user, or its own functioning. This promises greater comfort and safety for workers, especially those working in extreme or hazardous environments.
Complex automated systems can use machine learning to find patterns in data, without being explicitly instructed to do so. Once correctly programmed, machine learning can monitor a system continuously, and adapt to optimise situations as conditions change. It can also learn from encountering unsafe scenarios, and adapt procedures to prevent their repetition.
In addition, machine vision is being introduced which uses image processing to enable automated decision-making. This concept is very useful for automated inspections of machinery to ensure that it's running optimally. It can also reduce the likelihood of dangerous events occurring. Examples of machine vision include thermal imaging systems, and process control using real-time product information.
Continuous monitoring means that problems can be detected before any failures occur. Not only is production downtime prevented, but many hazardous situations can also be avoided, such as the build-up of dangerous gases. Using such inbuilt safety systems obviates or reduces the need for human beings to work in hazardous environments or with extreme temperatures.
To advance traditional culture towards safety in Industry 4.0 will demand a technology and training revolution. Training will be vital and constantly evolving. Leaders will need to understand new technologies sufficiently to implement appropriate safety training. They may need professional help with new safety systems, and may need to employ safety-dedicated personnel. It will no longer be sufficient for industry leaders just to install new equipment. They will also have to learn it quickly themselves, in order to be able to pass on that knowledge for the safety of their workers.