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Could advances in robotics hold the keys to industrial safety?

Technology is changing the way we do almost everything. Machines are steadily taking over many categories of jobs that used to be performed by humans. In the industrial context, robotics are thriving. So, too, is the "Industrial Internet of Things" – a proliferation of smart technology that uses interconnected sensors and software to keep complex processes in sync.

Most of these advances are geared toward reducing costs and increasing efficiency. Businesses adopt new technology when it makes sense for their bottom lines. Yet new technology may also open the doors to vast safety improvements, particularly in the industrial context.

Industrial jobs pose countless dangers for workers. Heavy machinery, toxic chemicals, powerful equipment and extreme temperatures are just a few of the hazards workers must deal with on a daily basis. The most rigorous safety protocols can't completely remove the risk of injury or death. Yet if workers were replaced with robots, that risk could, in theory, be virtually eliminated.

Some factories are already fully automated – staffed by robots instead of humans. Approximately 230,000 robots currently serve important roles in factories and other industrial facilities across the U.S., according to the Robotic Industries Association.

With machines handling the nitty-gritty details so humans don't have to get their hands dirty, it stands to reason that we should eventually see a reduced rate in workplace accidents and injuries.

"Smarter" technology may also make it easier to prevent accidents. Equipped with more accurate data sensors – and the ability to share that data across an entire network of machinery and equipment – factories can develop more effective shut-off triggers and emergency protocols.

However, automation also carries its own risks. Even the most advanced technology can't match the level of human judgment necessary for many situations. Additionally, by relying too much on technology, workers could overlook important warning signs or system failures.

It remains to be seen whether, on balance, the advantages of these technological advances will outweigh the risks.

Source: Manufacturing Business Technology, "Manufacturing Automation: Finding The ROI In A Digital Strategy," Larry Korak, May 15, 2015.

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