The evolution of safety in manufacturing

Consumer demand for the diversification and variation of products and assets has led to a host of unique safety challenges in the manufacturing industry. As the manufacturing industry has evolved, so too have the safety needs and requirements of employees on the job. 

Production facilities, and the individual machines themselves, are under pressure to improve efficiencies and as a result, employees must navigate how changes to equipment and processes can impact their safety.

Opportunely for manufacturers, breakthroughs in technology, and its broadening application, is helping to make the manufacturing industry a safer place in line with these trends.

However, in the past, manufacturers have approached these technologies with caution due to the challenges in adoption and installation that can arise.

Over the past decade however, wireless and electronic safety technologies have evolved. Today, wireless solutions adhere to stringent safety standards, and new technologies have overcome challenges that have hindered adoption in the past. Together with ensuring operator safety, wireless remote control systems can create significant competitive advantage through increased mobility, reduced installation cost and time, and benefits of preventive maintenance.

Electronic safety components

The primary purpose of machine safety components and solutions is to protect the workforce that closely interacts with machinery. Areas and processes that represent a hazard to machine operators and engineers need to be safeguarded. In the past this was largely done using guarding, which physically stopped anyone from getting close to the hazard. Later, electronic safety components like safety light curtains or laser scanners (opto-electronic devices to detect the operator’s presence) started to be used for certain safety applications and this reduced the need, time and effort for physical guards.

Alongside safety, these electronic components also provided other benefits such as reducing installation time while increasing operator mobility. Such technologies inspired the train of thought that a safe machine or process could be leveraged to increase productivity and operator efficiency.

The latest stage of that evolution is the new generation of wireless remote control systems now available in the marketplace. These new solutions introduce the notion of mobility and they offer higher levels of flexibility and safety for plant floor operators. Whilst improving safety of operators, there are significant advantages in terms of efficiency, cost, installation time and diagnostics.

Wireless technology

Wireless remote control systems allow operators to be remote from the hazard. Rather than needing to control and monitor the application in close proximity, these devices enable operators to distance themselves. An example would be a crane or hoist used to transport heavy equipment in a factory. With a range of up to 50 meters, the operator can safely distance him/her self from the load and has a better view of potential hazards. In this instance, the flexibility of being mobile is also an advantage in terms of efficiency. The ability to move freely without cabling, allows the operator to work more quickly and with greater perspective.

Other benefits of wireless remote control devices are that they allow employees to work more quickly and use diagnostics without moving from the floor, resulting in improved asset performance.

Wireless technology is also cheaper to install and require less maintenance given the cabling of a control station accounts for 15 per cent of the installation cost. Maintenance and ongoing lifecycle management are improved too, due to the ability to quickly swap remote control devices, which can be paired at distance.

Implementing a wireless system

Although the benefits to safety and efficiency are clear, implementation of wireless safety technology has not traditionally been easy with transmission interference, security, the limitations of battery power and breakages are some of the common challenges faced.  

However advances to technology have come a long way in combating these challenges and have allowed manufacturing to unlock the full potential of wireless technology.

  • Interference:

The 2.4GHz frequency is being used more and more to solve radio interference, as its signal reliability is stronger than the traditional lower frequencies. Other high reliability wireless technology, like Bluetooth Low Energy, further improves mobile wireless control systems to avoid possible interference from other devices. 

  • Security

As more automation devices are networked, the concern over data and network security continues to grow. Provisions must be taken to guard against non-malicious intrusions, through education operators and clear operating procedures. The use of specific functions, such as code sequencing and encrypted communication can go a long way in helping to protect against external attacks.

  • Battery life

New battery technologies are furthering the application of remote systems, with batteries that are charged for a few minutes providing autonomy for a full working day.

  • Breakages

Wireless control devices are susceptible to being broken or lost, impacting overall productivity. However, the replacement process is simple as the base configuration on the bridge of the crane can be downloaded via radio to the remote device.

Safety for the future

Innovative technology has reduced barriers to the adoption of wireless control systems. The challenges that have historically inhibited adoption of wireless technology have been addressed, and assurance can be given as to reliability of solutions, security of networks and running time of the remote control device itself (in-line with relevant standards).

Manufacturers, who want to increase productivity, and ultimately revenue, no longer have an excuse for failing to implement new safety devices. By implementing electronic safety hazards and wireless technology, manufacturers can safe guard their future, protecting against injury, while driving efficiency and success.

 

About Javier Gonzalez Lombardia

Javier Gonzalez Lombardia is the Project Marketing Manager for new range wireless remote control stations at Schneider Electric. Prior to his work in this position, he was the Application Marketing Manager for Hoisting and Material Handling Application Centres and later the Product manager for Safety Modules and Controllers. Javier holds a Bachelor’s degree in Electrical engineering and Master’s degree in Industrial Marketing from Polytechnic University of Catalonia.