Archives for May 2016

Engineers refine safety standards as collaborative robots enter the warehouse

By Ben Ames | May 12, 2016 | 12:02 PM

Now that robots are becoming a common sight in many warehouses, logistics companies face a new challenge—how to design their robots and train their employees to work together in safe, productive teams? That issue was a central topic last week at the RIA’s International Collaborative Robots Workshop, held in Boston May 3 and 4.

The traditional standard for ensuring safe relations in mixed human/robot workplaces has been to encase the robots in cages, isolating them to guarantee they would not crush a human worker’s hand or roll over his foot. A slightly more flexible approach set safety distances, so that robots run slower—or even stop—as humans cross light curtains and cross into pre-determined danger zones.

However, those approaches become unwieldy as robots increasingly move around the warehouse, shuttling merchandise from point to point. So the latest strategies involve power and force limiting, Roberta Nelson Shea, global marketing manager for safety components at Rockwell Automation, said in a session at the conference.

Engineers are drafting design standards through the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) that will govern how quickly robots can move when sensors show they are near various points of the human body. For example, a moving part might slow slightly when it is near a worker’s leg, but move nearly to a stop if it s near a human’s face or neck.

These safety steps can allow warehouses to achieve better productivity by using collaborative robots—known as “Cobots”—to work alongside humans. Depending on their proximity, designers can also adjust the robot’s payload limit, speed, reach, arm stiffness, and force sensors, said Corey Ryan, manager of medical robotics at Kuka Robotics Corp.

For example, one of Kuka’s robots that works on the dishwasher assembly line at a Maytag plant features a safety feature that will automatically stop the robot in the midst of any task when a person touches the robotic arm. When the employee touches the arm again, the robot resumes its work.

Additional ISO standards require robot manufacturers to install redundant software and sensors to ensure they stay within those parameters, Ryan said.

As robots emerge from their cages and begin to collaborate with human colleagues, designers can use a variety of standards to deliver the ideal level of collaboration, said Nicolas de Keijser, of ABB Robotics. This can range from:

  • no collaboration (with the robot secured behind a safety fence),
  • fenceless operation (allowing robots to move without physical safety structures separating them from workers),
  • sporadic interaction (where human occasionally reload a machine, or feed materials in and out of the workflow)
  • open co-working (where the robot constantly interacts with human employees).

Whether robots are serving to assemble devices, test products, deliver tools, move pallets, or swap parcels with a conveyor, these mechanical colleagues are here to stay. Collaboration between human employees and their robotic collaborators could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Beyond the bottom line

By Toby Gooley | May 02, 2016 | 1:17 PM


Each month DC Velocity publishes a brief news item variously titled “Good deeds,” “Logistics gives back,” or (when we’re feeling a bit silly) “Monthly mitzvahs.” These articles list some recent public service activities and charitable donations by companies in the logistics, material handling, and supply chain space. Some sponsor fundraising events like golf tournaments or road races; others donate money, supplies, and/or their employees’ time and labor to local or national charities. Whether small or large, in cash or in kind, these donations can make an appreciable difference to nonprofit organizations.

Over the years that we’ve been collecting that information, it’s become clear that a significant number of businesses in our field have made such “good deeds” part of their corporate culture. Gina Manis-Anderson thinks more companies should do the same—and that if they did, they’d find that the benefits flow in both directions.

Manis-Anderson, a former supply chain executive, is the co-founder and CEO of Savii Group. The firm acts as a buyers advocate to help companies find hidden savings across dozens of product and service categories and is paid based on the amount of money it saves its clients. But Savii offers them something more: the opportunity to direct some of its performance fees to a nonprofit of the client’s choice.

Savii calls this “Foundraising” (a term the company has trademarked) because the donations do not cut into a company’s bottom line; instead, they come from savings uncovered through better management of indirect expenses, including the procurement of supplies and services. Among the companies that have taken advantage of this arrangement are Ulta Beauty Supply, Baker Electric, and Century 21.

Manis-Anderson and her colleagues say they can document that companies achieve a measurable return on investment when they use the financial resources they’ve freed up through smarter spend and supplier management to fund initiatives that matter to their company, their employees, and their community. It’s powerful, she says, when CEOs say to people, “I don’t need you to cut your budget by a million dollars. I want you to find a million dollars so you can not only do your job better, but also make the world a better place.”

The supply chain and procurement functions are well suited to help a business that aims to “marry profits with purpose,” as Manis-Anderson puts it. After all, eliminating waste, improving efficiency, and supporting profitable growth are all part of a supply chain organization’s charge. From what I can see, you don’t have to work for a huge corporation to do as Savii’s clients have done. If you’re going to provide your company with “found money,” why not use some of that windfall for a good cause?

The opinions expressed herein are those solely of the participants, and do not necessarily represent the views of Agile Business Media, LLC., its properties or its employees.

Thoughts from our editors.

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