While "Safety First" has long been the rallying cry of warehouse managers, the arrival of sophisticated automation has added a new dimension to how workers approach safety concerns. As manufacturers turn to automated systems to increase production efficiency, reduce errors and cut costs, the challenge of those looking to reduce workplace accidents and improve safety grows more complex. True, with automation some of the more common hazards and acts of carelessness may be initially reduced, but learning to interact with the software and hardware that now may dictate productivity is an undertaking on its own.
Limiting accidents of repetition
One of the way that automated systems makes warehouses safer is by eliminating one of the main causes of human error: fatigue through repetition. Repetitious actions – particular ones involving manual labor and relatively low specialized training – are ripe for causing fatigue in workers, which can lead to critical errors. Even without making errors, workers who are exposed to hazardous chemicals day in and day out may face risks even if they perform their jobs perfectly. Machines do not have this kind of difficult, though care should be paid to making sure all operationally essential elements are kept in full working order.
Autonomous robot workers
When considering the idea of an automated warehouse, many picture a floor devoid of human workers. This, however, isn't yet the world we live in and the technology isn't quite that sophisticated. Instead, companies like online retailer Zulily deploy simple robots with limited functionality, designed to accomplish designated tasks. In the case of Zulily, they use a driverless vehicle equipped with 360-degree vision that allows it to navigate the warehouse facility and transport goods.
"Previously, human workers were required to transport materials from point A to point B, which can be intensive in terms of time, labor and cost," Dwarakesh Jayaram, industrial engineer at Zulily, told ZDNet. "We wanted to look at ways to move the products faster and more efficiently without having to dedicate human labor to those repetitive processes. Ultimately, we decided to go with an automated guided vehicle."
This deployment of automation supplements human workers, but itself requires some degree of interaction and support: Workers must be trained to operate the robot as well as perform maintenance on the machine and the software that guides it. Yet a crucial dimension of this work is also updating safety procedures so that workers and automatons can limit accidents.
Implementing safety systems
The first step toward integrating automation into warehouse and production facilities is to start with safety systems. Updating signage and labeling to reflect new risks and hazards – such as wires strung where previously there were none and shock risk – can help workers become more aware of the changing environment around them. Another element to consider is that the conditions that automated systems may require to function at peak may be challenging or uncomfortable for human workers. Robotic systems that can withstand high heat or cold may mean that additional safety training and clear signage warning workers of these areas are required.
Following this, warehouse managers can actually integrate limited amounts of automation into safety systems. Safety equipment like safety gates, motion sensors, emergency stop switches and guard rails may already employ simple automation, while more sophisticated automation can be at work with preprogrammed safety checks and alerts.
"Making safe decisions can't be automated, but certain safety rules can be automated, controlled, and monitored in WMS (warehouse management systems), effectively reducing the potential for an accident to occur," Tadeusz Dyduch told Cisco Eagle.
One major element of safety that may be a completely new area of focus for warehouse managers is the idea of cybersecurity. As digital attacks on businesses and private individuals over the years have steadily increased, the systems that operate automated warehouses represent a key vulnerability. Malicious software or a hacker intrusion could potentially shut down entire systems, rendering the warehouse inoperable.
To combat this, businesses must focus on conducting regular software updates and teaching workers new security protocols. For foremen who operate tablets or desktops with the automation control software on it, conducting training related to how to keep login information secure is imperative.
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