Three ways connected technologies provide a gateway to enhanced safety

Connected technologies can reduce risks and improve worker safety by taking advantage of digital twins and smart devices.

By Robert Mosher May 15, 2024
Courtesy: Rockwell Automation

Connected worker and safety insights

  • Connected technology in production not only boosts efficiency but also enhances worker safety through virtual training, risk assessment, and smart safety devices.
  • Utilizing digital twins for design, smart safety systems, and data-driven insights can optimize safety, compliance, and productivity in industrial environments.

Discussions about the use of connected technology in production often focus on improving outcomes in areas like throughput, efficiency and uptime. But the technology can also help address another critical need in plants — worker safety.

Production systems and devices connected to the larger automation infrastructure can enhance safety in direct and indirect ways. Robots, for instance, can take on tasks to reduce employees’ exposure to safety hazards. Virtual training can help build worker competency so they can be productive while following safety procedures. And data from smart devices can deliver greater insights into where safety performance can be improved.

In many cases, the technologies that can enhance safety can also help boost productivity, uptime and more, enabling plants to do more with less at a time when skilled talent is hard to find.

Some of the top safety-centric opportunities connected technologies present include:

1. Reducing risks beginning at the design phase with digital twins

Digital twins — or virtual replicas of physical objects or processes — are already used to accelerate and optimize the process of designing machines. They also can be used to address safety risks associated with those machines.

In the design phase, for example, engineers can identify the location of potential machine hazards before they’ve ordered parts or cut steel for the machine. This virtual risk assessment doesn’t eliminate the need for a traditional physical risk assessment. It also can help engineers pre-emptively add safety systems to a machine.

The machine’s operation, including its interactions with workers and other machines, can be simulated with the digital twin to confirm the machine and its safety systems work as expected. This can help reduce the risk of safety-related changes after the machine is built and speed up machine deployment.

Even after the machine’s design is finalized, its digital twin can further support worker safety in other ways. It can be used for virtual training, for example, which can improve the competency of employees.

With virtual training, a digital twin can be used to not only train workers on how to keep production running in ideal conditions, but what to do in exceptional scenarios that can’t be recreated in physical training. It also can use digital cues to guide employees during training. Those cues can then be removed to see if operators can still complete tasks without help.

Figure 1: Virtual training can help build worker competency so they can be productive while following safety procedures.

Figure 1: Virtual training can help build worker competency so they can be productive while following safety procedures. Courtesy: Rockwell Automation

2. Enhancing safety and more with smart systems and devices

Advances in safety systems and devices can help plants stay not only safe and compliant, but also productive.

Sometimes, machine operators may ignore safety procedures and override safety systems when dealing with problematic aspects of a machine. If they need to open a machine door to clear jams, for instance, they may attempt to override the safety system, such as by using a spare actuator to fool the safety system into thinking the door is closed. Smart systems are designed to be more difficult to override. For example, actuators with uniquely coded RFID technology can be connected to enterprise-level databases that limit machine access to employees who have been trained.

Smart safety devices also can help reduce downtime associated with safety events. They can use integrated safety functions like safe torque off, which allows a machine to restart faster after reaching a safe state by removing motor torque without removing power from an entire machine. Safety zones can allow motion to continue on a machine outside of a safety zone that has experienced a trip.

As more companies adopt industrial robots as skilled workers become harder to find, they’re considering using collaborative robots (cobots), which can move and interact closely with workers. Drives with safety functions are a key enabler of these robots because they help cobots move and interact in a safe and predictable manner.

Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) are another kind of robot proliferating in plants and warehouses. This is driving advances in the technologies used on the robots to help maintain or potentially enhance their safety and productivity. One advance in the works is the evolution of AGV LIDAR-based laser scanners from 2D to 3D scanning capabilities. This can give AGVs a more complete view of the environments around them as they navigate busy plant floors.

3. Getting a better handle on safety with data-based insights

Data from smart safety systems and devices can help production and safety managers better understand their safety risks and safety performance.

For instance, safety standards require that safety devices be exercised on a scheduled basis to confirm they remain functional. However, managers don’t always have a way to confirm if these activities are being performed. Smart safety devices can change that by producing data on when they were last operated or tested. Managers can use this data to schedule device tests when needed to help maintain compliance.

Safety device data can also provide insights into when, where and why safety-related events are occurring. Data collected on the activities of a machine’s interlocked guard doors, for example, could reveal repeated downtime events are occurring because operators are often requesting access to a guarded area. Managers could then investigate to identify the root cause of the issue, such as operators not following procedures or improper machine design.

Figure 2: Smart safety devices can help managers use data to schedule device tests when needed to help maintain compliance.

Figure 2: Smart safety devices can help managers use data to schedule device tests when needed to help maintain compliance. Courtesy: Rockwell Automation

Uptime can be further improved by using data from smart safety systems and devices to inform maintenance activities. A vibration sensor within a safety device, for example, could pick up higher vibration levels caused by a nearby bearing or motor. Maintenance could then investigate and address the issue during a scheduled downtime, potentially saving the plant costly planned downtime.

Some smart devices can also monitor their optical receivers to identify if they’re becoming dusty or dirty. When the signal strength reaches a certain threshold, it can trigger a maintenance event for the sensor’s lens to be cleaned to help avoid unplanned downtime.

Even something as simple as how smart safety technologies are connected can deliver cost and productivity benefits. Connection options like EtherNet/IP and other safety protocols for connecting simple safety devices allow safety and diagnostic data to be delivered on one cable. This can deliver significant improvement over the traditional approach of hardwiring safety devices, which not only involves more wiring but also can make it difficult to pinpoint failures when multiple devices are wired in a series.

An AI on safety

Smart, connected technologies have created new ways for plants to create safe and compliant machines while extracting greater productivity and cost savings from those machines. The opportunities will be even greater as more technology advances are rolled out in production.

Soon, people may not even need to comb through production data to understand their safety performance. AI-powered technologies also could find those insights — along with other insights into safety and safety-related downtime that can’t be spotted by the human eye.

Author Bio: Robert Mosher, business manager at Rockwell Automation