How Safety Technology Can Increase Productivity

June 22, 2015
Elimination of physical barriers to production equipment is key to improving productivity. To get started, however, you must begin with a safety assessment.

In my last several blogs, I wrote about the importance of developing an Automation Roadmap and how to create one for yourself. I am wrapping up the sequence with two topics that often fall off the radar during planning—your network infrastructure and safety. In my last blog, I went into detail about the network side of things. This blog addresses the importance of considering safety at the planning stage.

Manufacturing processes and operational intelligence have benefitted from the rapid advance of technology. Safety has, too. Historically, the most common way to safeguard workers in and around manufacturing equipment was to provide physical barriers between workers and operating equipment. While this type of safety system both provides for safe operation and maintenance as well as meets the appropriate codes, it limits productivity.

Physical guarding must be removed to access the equipment, which is important in every manufacturing process, whether it is for changing a product over, clearing a jam, or performing routine maintenance. Precious manufacturing time is lost while workers remove and replace guarding and ensure the proper interlocks are in place. I would be remiss if I did not mention that many interlock systems also require significant maintenance.

Modern safety technology presents the opportunity for significant productivity gains without sacrificing reliability. It is a matter of opening up the processing line, providing better access and equipment visibility. These technologies do not require physical barriers, yet they provide the same—if not better—level of safety. These include light curtains, laser scanners and area (3D) scanners, all of which can be integrated with existing equipment. Additionally, certain equipment, like collaborative robots, now have safety already integrated.

So, how do you get started? Schedule a safety assessment. This will tell you whether or not your operations are safe. It represents a proactive approach to keeping workers safe around your operations. Before you proceed with the assessment, be sure you are committed to acting on the results. Otherwise, the assessment is not a good investment.

Many systems integrators, automation solution providers and safety component manufacturers offer this service. A safety assessment audits your existing processing lines to determine the risks that are present and identify measures in place to protect personnel from those risks.

As part of the assessment, every operation in your plant will be assigned a risk category, which takes into account the potential severity of injury and the likelihood of occurrence, as well as other factors. This will dictate the level of protection required around that operation. Any existing deficiencies will be highlighted. Your immediate focus should be to address these deficiencies as quickly as possible, as these represent a potential liability for your company.

After the deficiencies are addressed, the risk category, which is the key component of the safety assessment, should be used in your planning. When planning upgrades, include this information and let your integrator know that you want to use modern safety technology to provide better operator and maintenance accessibility. By doing this, your requested budget will likely increase, and, if you read my previous blogs, you know that you need to include a return on investment analysis to establish your budget. Luckily this analysis should be pretty straightforward, as it's a simple assessment of access time, how often access is required, and the cost of downtime. Having better visibility is an indirect benefit and something that needs to be considered by application, but always be on the lookout for ways to better identify downtime causes and/or prevent downtime.

Safety is one of the hidden gems of the technology boom. It provides several bangs for your buck: greater safety reliability, increased productivity and, most importantly, a proactive way to minimize unplanned costs stemming from unsafe operations and resulting injuries.

Michael Gurney is CEO of Concept Systems Inc., a Certified member of the Control System Integrators Association. See Concept Systems’ profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.

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