Machine Safety and the Future of the Factory

Expect the Unexpected written on the road

Rolf Najork, Chairman of the Executive Board of Bosch Rexroth AG, recently pointed out an issue with machine safety that will be unavoidable if we continue on our current path in factory technology.

A machine which is correctly built and properly configured will be as safe as possible. It will continue to follow its programming for its service life, and will continue to be safe. New safety technology may be developed — that’s true for Rexroth industrial motion control machinery, certainly — but machines currently in service will continue to be as safe as they were when installed.

Self-learning machines are a different kettle of fish when it comes to safety. ” In the lifecycle of the next machine generations,” says Najork, “the machines and their functions will constantly adapt and develop further. Owners or users will change programs or add new ones. The machine manufacturer can no longer be responsible for this.”

That’s reasonable. But it also creates difficulties. Machine operators already make alterations in machines that cause those machines to be less safe — overriding safety features and working around barriers designed to limit human access to machinery, for example.

When collaborative robots are learning new actions from human operators, can we predict how safety features might be circumvented? Can we even predict what safety features might be needed?

Robots programmed by humans are predictable. Robots empowered by humans to program themselves are only as predictable as the humans. Humans are not very predictable.

Najork suggests decentralized safety features: safeguards that do not reside entirely in the robot and which are not entirely under the control of the operators. He’d like to see sensors that identify possible human safety issues as well as those that control the functions of the robots and identify maintenance issues. He also suggests that people get together and make some plans now, while the future technology we expect is still safely in the future.

These seem like very sensible suggestions. In the meantime, we can help with all your Rexroth electric motion control needs, for legacy machines as well as new units.

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