Automation to the Rescue

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From the beginning, experts have advocated for the automation of tasks that fall into the 3 “D”s: “dirty, dull and/or dangerous”. It’s good guidance for companies large and small; and as technology advances, the possibilities in the “dangerous” category are broader than ever—from enabling tighter security to making it easier to maintain social distancing.

Making the workplace safer

Industrial environments are no stranger to workplace injuries. In fact, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO), 2.3 million people across the world die every year in work-related accidents or diseases; 340 million per year are victims of “occupational accidents.” But there is a silver lining—workplace injuries have dropped dramatically since the 1970s, and experts point to automation as a big reason. 

While the types of injuries vary, physical overexertion is the most costly for employers in the U.S., according to the 2020 Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index (at an expense of $13.98 billion per year). Automation material handling is nothing new, but the technology is getting better and more accessible by the day. For example, newer robotic technology can better manage bulky, oddly shaped, or inconsistently sized items, thanks to improved sensor technology and AI. Plus, the newest autonomous mobile robots are small but mighty—able to navigate narrower aisles and tighter spaces in warehouses, manufacturing plants and distribution centers. 

Forklift operation is another key task ripe for improved safety. According to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, forklifts are responsible for more than 96,000 injuries per year. That makes autonomous (or even semi-autonomous) forklifts a great option for businesses of all sizes and experience levels—especially since you can get started with just one machine. According to ABI Research, close to a million forklifts are sold every year, but less than 1 percent are automated—so there’s a lot of opportunity yet to be tapped.

Making your business more secure

Automation comes into play for security purposes in two key ways: Physical security (monitoring locations for trespassing, theft, etc.) and cyber security. 

For physical security, drones are being used as security guards, particularly in the warehousing, logistics and construction segments. They can either continually patrol an area to deter crime, or be triggered to deploy, within minutes, to the scene of a breach. 

As for cyber security, automation can be a double-edged sword. Cloud-based systems and IoT, for example, enable more powerful automation because they fuel AI applications that allow systems to become smarter and more capable with less human intervention; not to mention the valuable insights they feed, in real-time, to the businesses that demploy them. But the very systems that can leverage this tech to increase digital security (monitoring activity and alerting businesses to a variety of suspicious behavior within their operations) can also open the door for cyber attacks. Thanks in large part to the pandemic forcing more remote work, cyberattacks in the U.S. doubled in 2020, costing businesses 4.2 billion. 

Fortunately, there are many ways automation users can reap the benefits of automated security measures while still keeping themselves safe from outside threats. A new trend in the automation world centers around blockchain technology (a digital ledger shared across a participating network). Unlike traditional data storage, the blockchain allows each transaction to be stored as a block which is approved and then linked chronologically with the transactions made before and after it. Proponents believe it can help boost the power of predictive analytics, data transfer and management, and inventory/shipment tracking, while also enhancing security/reducing fraud. 

Another way to enable automation while keeping a wall around your data is to use edge-computing platforms as an alternative to cloud-based systems. Edge computing is defined as a network configuration that keeps data storage and analysis closer to the sources of data. This not only keeps data more secure (since it is confined to on-premise networks that are largely inaccessible to outside parties) but also is preferable for applications that require lightning-fast response times or have connectivity issues; to react to a serious and immediate production line issue or for remote field environments, for example.

Maintaining social distancing

COVID has changed operations in industrial environments forever. And even when we finally adjust to the “new normal,” social distancing is a practice that could help protect employees from a variety of airborne illnesses in the workplace for the foreseeable future. It’s more and more realistic thanks to automation. 

One buzzworthy example is truck-unloading robots. Honeywell introduced one in 2019 and saw a big jump in interest during the pandemic. Before this innovation, multiple workers might be crammed in tight, unventilated spaces to unload truck trailers; now, a single robot can do the job faster, keeping workers safe while handling more interesting tasks. 

Another noteworthy application that has legs for social distancing measures is real-time location systems (RTLS)—which track the location of objects (or people) down to the foot. By having employees wear RTLS transponders, employers will be able to see, monitor and correct “problem areas” within the workplace (a highly trafficked but narrow warehouse aisle, for instance). RTLS technology can even be time-based—allowing employers to see how long a close, non-socially-distant encounter took place. Finally, it would allow employers to better control workplace outbreaks—of any airborne illness—since they could look back on RTLS data and see which employees had close contact with the infected person.

Experts believe that even if social distancing becomes less important, businesses can still make good use of their RTLS investment. Another application could be monitoring employees to deter theft and improve productivity.

See these trends—and more—live

Automation is helping businesses in all industries stay safe—and competitive. To succeed, you need the right solution providers, the right technology, and the right expertise. Automate, May 22–25, 2023, at the Huntington Place convention center in Detroit, Michigan, is the place to see it. Free to attend, you’ll experience the full spectrum of automation technologies and solutions—from traditional industrial applications to cutting-edge technologies. So, come unlock tomorrow’s automation possibilities—today!

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