UB TCIE assistance adds extra safety layer to Bak USA’s ‘cobot’ operations

TCIE project engineer Akshay Sivadas, far left standing, presents collaborative robot safety tips to Bak USA production employees.

TCIE project engineer Akshay Sivadas, far left standing, presents collaborative robot safety tips to Bak USA production employees. Credit: Jake Lollis.

By Tracy Puckett

Release Date: May 21, 2018

“We feel we can be at the forefront of this technology and this way of manufacturing. But we also want to ensure proactive safety measures are in place.”
Matt Malloy, director of advanced manufacturing
Bak USA

BUFFALO, N.Y. - As a fast-growing computer company, Bak USA of Buffalo endeavors to adopt technology that reduces inefficiencies, but not to the detriment of its workforce.

Collaborative robots are proving to be the right balance for the people-centric social enterprise. Known as “cobots” for short, these machines inherited the arduous job of inserting tiny screws into devices, working alongside employees who assemble the remainder.  

“We feel we can be at the forefront of this technology and this way of manufacturing,” says Matt Malloy, Bak USA’s director of advanced manufacturing. “But we also want to ensure proactive safety measures are in place.”

Despite a bevy of precautions already engineered into the cobots, Bak USA leaders refuse to gamble in protecting their workforce. Malloy reached out to the University at Buffalo Center for Industrial Effectiveness (TCIE) to assess the safety of its cobots – which now total three – and instill a more robust recognition of safe practices among employees.

Ensuring cobot safety

Bak USA worked closely with Buffalo Manufacturing Works to develop and implement their unique application. Free from the cages that imprison traditional robots, cobots share space with workers and stop moving and operating at the slightest collision with a human. The company’s distinct application features cobots residing within five-person workstations.

TCIE, the business outreach arm of the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, was requested to evaluate cobot framework and functionality against Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations as well as a Robotic Industries Association (RIA) technical report. The RIA document specifies safety measures recommended for industrial robots and robot systems, from the enterprise level to the operator, in areas such as robot system design, hazard identification, risk assessment and cobot application requirements. RIA guidelines are expected to mature to industry standards by 2020.

TCIE Project Engineer Akshay Sivadas used International Organization for Standardization (ISO) auditing techniques to complete the assessment. While the findings raised no red flags and had an assuring effect, Malloy said he was surprised by a few of the gaps identified.  

“Some gaps would not be readily identified as being safety related, but with operational discipline,” he said. For example, the RIA encourages clear identification of the movement of parts between different operating areas.

The rectification of most gaps – such as delineating restricted space – is being addressed as part of Bak USA’s continuous improvement list.

The assessment gave Malloy and his colleagues a deeper comprehension of RIA guidelines, and with it new perspectives to consider when vetting potential technology systems and cobots.  

Protecting employees

When growing up in Nigeria, Ayinde Adepoju believed that tools and machines in America are completely safe to operate and pose no hazards.  

He has since learned that his assumptions were incorrect. He began working at Bak USA as a production technician in July 2017, where he and co-workers regularly talk about safety.

Bak USA’s production manager begins every day with a manufacturing team meeting, during which employees are encouraged to speak about safety issues. The topic could be an occurrence within the building, in the parking lot or at home. Discussions especially benefit the company’s diverse workforce that includes immigrants from 20 countries with unique cultural backgrounds. Some do not speak English as a first language.

“Security issues are not something you can joke with. You don’t want to get injured,” Adepoju said. “We are all human beings, and these are only machines that can fail.”

TCIE’s Sivadas reinforced such sentiments when he presented a safety workshop to Adepoju and 15 other technicians and team leaders. The company trains employees in operating the cobots and related safety measures, but saw opportunity to broaden their view.  

The workshop included reminders about simple actions that guard against accidents, such as immediately cleaning up a spill, and demonstrated how small mishaps can lead to injury.      

Production technician David Morales Dowins has been a Bak USA employee for nearly two years. He commented on the session’s revelation of reasons for certain protocols, such as the need to wear a lab coat. He also gained greater insight into cobot mechanics and capabilities.  

Offering the workshop as frequently as once per quarter – as a refresher for seasoned employees and/or requirement for new hires – is under consideration.

“As we’re growing,” Malloy said, “we certainly want to keep everyone up to speed.”

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