Risk Insider: Stacie Graham

The Looming Manufacturing Skills Shortfall Part 2: Cobots to the Rescue?

By: | May 1, 2018

Stacie Graham is SVP and General Manager of National Insurance Casualty & Middle Market – Central Division for Liberty Mutual Insurance. She leads underwriting and service teams for large and midsize accounts. You can reach her at [email protected].

Part 1 of this series covered the ongoing talent shortage in manufacturing and how apprenticeships can start building the next generation of workers.
Collaborative robots, or cobots, are another way for manufacturers to mitigate the shortfall of talent.

Cobots are meant to work alongside human workers rather than replace them. They perform the repetitive, ergonomically-challenging tasks that humans want to avoid, and they are quickly gaining popularity on a broad scale. According to market analysts at Barclays, the cobot market could grow to $3 billion by 2020.

Their benefit is three-pronged: Taking workers off repetitive fine motor tasks can reduce the risk of soft-tissue injuries; employees are free to take on higher-level thinking tasks, like quality control or programming, which increases job satisfaction and the likelihood of retaining those employees; and cobots boost the efficiency of each individual worker, which reduces the total number of employees needed on the floor and makes the talent gap easier to bridge.

According to market analysts at Barclays, the cobot market could grow to $3 billion by 2020.

Machines working alongside employees in any capacity will present their own unique risks. Manufacturing risk managers should consider the following five areas of exposures when implementing cobots on the factory floor:

  1. Safety: Incorrect or incomplete programming or a malfunction could cause a cobot to make unexpected movements, which poses a hazard to those working in close proximity. Workers also have to be aware of the cobots’ space and trained in how to operate its external safety mechanisms. Using cobots correctly should reduce workers’ exposures to more dangerous tasks, but misuse could place them directly in harm’s way. Have you conducted a risk assessment and updated safety training to make sure employees know how to work side-by-side with robots safely and effectively?
  2. Product Liability: With a place on the production line, cobots play an integral role in product quality. A malfunction or programming flaw can introduce inconsistencies into the final outcome and increase product liability exposure. Does your quality control protocol consider cobot programming?
  3. Contract Language: If your cobot does injure an employee or tarnish a product, who should be held responsible: the robot manufacturer, the programmer, or your facility? If the cobot breaks down due to a defect, who will foot the bill for repair or replacement? Consult with legal counsel to put contracts in place that assign liability appropriately.
  4. Contingency Planning: As manufacturers grow more dependent on robots, there’s an increased need for contingency planning. In the event of equipment breakdown, how quickly can you repair or procure a new cobot? Identifying backup suppliers and service vendors is critical to keep operations running smoothly and minimize business interruption.
  5. Insurance Coverage: New equipment and subsequent changes to normal operational procedures call for an overview of insurance policies. Do you have appropriate coverage limits on property, general liability, equipment breakdown, business interruption, and operational replacement costs?

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