Safety System: Robots, workers can unite

Robots interact with humans every day in the manufacturing arena, but safety between the two remains an issue. However, a new projection and camera-based system is designed to prevent collisions between robots and humans working together.


Picture this scenario: A robot lifts and positions a heavy component while a worker welds lightweight aluminum components to a machine right next to it. Humans and robots will be able to team, especially on assembly jobs, and collaboratively play off their strengths: Steel assistants could bring their power, durability and speed to bear and humans their dexterity and motor skills.

At present, automated robots usually stay enclosed within protective barriers. Industrial safety regulations permit contact between people and robots only under certain conditions since the risk of injury to humans is too great. In order to allow their collaboration, new technologies have to define workplaces and safe zones, which humans may not enter.

That is where the ViERforES project comes in. Supported by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Factory Operation and Automation IFF developed a solution that monitors workplaces.

This safety system employs conventional projectors and cameras, which are normally mounted on the ceiling.

One feature of the system is its projection of monitored safe zones directly onto a floor or wall. Projected beams produce visible lines in the work area. Thus, humans recognize the safe zone right away and know how close they may get to a robot. The camera immediately detects any intrusion in the safe zone by an individual. The robot decelerates at once. In addition, the system could generate optical and acoustic warning signals. Another distinctive feature is the variability of marked areas’ position and size and the capability to give them any shape – for instance, a circle, a rectangle or any freeform.

“Since we employ common standard components, our system can be installed cost effectively,” said Dr. Norbert Elkmann, Robotic Systems Business Unit Manager at the Fraunhofer IFF. “The projector and camera are calibrated and synchronized to one another.”

When a larger area needs monitoring, you could extend the system as desired by additional projectors and cameras.

The monitoring system operates with modulated light.

“The advantage of this is its reliability even under the effects of external light, e.g. sunlight and shadow,” Elkmann said. “Present purely camera-based space monitoring systems operate independently of external light only to a limited extent.”

In addition, the experts can combine this system with robot controls and thus dynamically modify danger and safe zones. If, for example, a robot only works to the left of its workspace at times, the system would not have to monitor the maximum robot workspace.

Elkmann and his team have filed a patent for their system. A prototype already exists. The potential applications of the projection and camera-based system are not merely limited to safe human-robot interaction. It can monitor other spaces in which safety is relevant. The system can also see use wherever safe zones might not be perceptible – by projecting invisible light.

- Edited by Chris Vavra, Plant Engineering, 

No comments
The Top Plant program honors outstanding manufacturing facilities in North America. View the 2013 Top Plant.
The Product of the Year program recognizes products newly released in the manufacturing industries.
The Engineering Leaders Under 40 program identifies and gives recognition to young engineers who...
A cool solution: Collaboration, chemistry leads to foundry coat product development; See the 2015 Product of the Year Finalists
Raising the standard: What's new with NFPA 70E; A global view of manufacturing; Maintenance data; Fit bearings properly
Sister act: Building on their father's legacy, a new generation moves Bales Metal Surface Solutions forward; Meet the 2015 Engineering Leaders Under 40
Cyber security cost-efficient for industrial control systems; Extracting full value from operational data; Managing cyber security risks
Drilling for Big Data: Managing the flow of information; Big data drilldown series: Challenge and opportunity; OT to IT: Creating a circle of improvement; Industry loses best workers, again
Pipeline vulnerabilities? Securing hydrocarbon transit; Predictive analytics hit the mainstream; Dirty pipelines decrease flow, production—pig your line; Ensuring pipeline physical and cyber security
Upgrading secondary control systems; Keeping enclosures conditioned; Diagnostics increase equipment uptime; Mechatronics simplifies machine design
Designing positive-energy buildings; Ensuring power quality; Complying with NFPA 110; Minimizing arc flash hazards
Building high availability into industrial computers; Of key metrics and myth busting; The truth about five common VFD myths

Annual Salary Survey

After almost a decade of uncertainty, the confidence of plant floor managers is soaring. Even with a number of challenges and while implementing new technologies, there is a renewed sense of optimism among plant managers about their business and their future.

The respondents to the 2014 Plant Engineering Salary Survey come from throughout the U.S. and serve a variety of industries, but they are uniform in their optimism about manufacturing. This year’s survey found 79% consider manufacturing a secure career. That’s up from 75% in 2013 and significantly higher than the 63% figure when Plant Engineering first started asking that question a decade ago.

Read more: 2014 Salary Survey: Confidence rises amid the challenges

Maintenance and reliability tips and best practices from the maintenance and reliability coaches at Allied Reliability Group.
The One Voice for Manufacturing blog reports on federal public policy issues impacting the manufacturing sector. One Voice is a joint effort by the National Tooling and Machining...
The Society for Maintenance and Reliability Professionals an organization devoted...
Join this ongoing discussion of machine guarding topics, including solutions assessments, regulatory compliance, gap analysis...
IMS Research, recently acquired by IHS Inc., is a leading independent supplier of market research and consultancy to the global electronics industry.
Maintenance is not optional in manufacturing. It’s a profit center, driving productivity and uptime while reducing overall repair costs.
The Lachance on CMMS blog is about current maintenance topics. Blogger Paul Lachance is president and chief technology officer for Smartware Group.