Technology Improves Machine Safety

Machine safety has progressed three centuries of technology in the last 15 years.

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Engineers have added new types of sensors. Controllers have been vastly improved. Safety networks, an oxymoron only a few years ago, are now approaching mainstream. Most important of all, engineers use safety as one of the primary criteria in machine design. They’ve discovered that if you plan a machine with safety in mind, you gain the fringe benefit of a machine that runs better, more efficiently, with less downtime.

When I started working in manufacturing in the early 1970s, safety wasn’t very far advanced from the early industrial days. Safety glasses existed, but they were not readily available and few people wore them. Same with hearing protection. One department where I worked vacuum-formed plastic sheets into component parts. The parts had to be trimmed. One task required standing for hours at various types of saws with blades exposed. I remember, after an hour or so, looking down at my hands and thinking, “You’d better pay attention to what you’re doing or you won’t play guitar again.”

Training in safety ideas that came from Europe—especially formal risk assessment—began in my area in the early 1990s. After I switched careers, I wrote a magazine article with information I had learned from that training. A reader wrote a nasty letter threatening to sue me—as well as the magazine—for publicizing those ideas.

Like I said: We’ve come many centuries in two decades.

For a free, informative Webcast explaining functional safety, go online to

Gary Mintchell,, is Editor In Chief of Automation World

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