Automation to the Rescue

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Updated 1/30/2024

Key takeaways:

  • Automation is increasingly being used in the workplace to improve safety, security and comfort for employees
  • In healthcare, robotic surgical assistants have improved outcomes for patients by allowing surgeons better precision and reducing fatigue during long surgeries
  • Automating low-value, high-volume tasks such as regulatory compliance can help reduce stress and increase accuracy in industries like pharmaceuticals

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 amount of dangerous tasks automation can take on grows larger than ever—from enabling tighter cybersecurity to ensuring the physical safety of employees. In this article, we’ll review how automation can address those issues by:

Let’s get started! 

Automation in the workplace for safety and security

Making the workplace safer

Industrial environments are no stranger to workplace injuries. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), every year 2.3 million people across the world die from 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 United States, according to the 2021 Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index (at an expense of more than $13.30 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 (OSHA), forklifts are responsible for more than 96,000 injuries and 86 deaths 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% are automated—so there’s a lot of opportunity yet to be tapped. 

The robotics industry itself has an unprecedented record of safety. While every death or injury is a tragedy, according to OSHA, there were just 41 robot-related deaths in the United States from 1992 to 2017, averaging 1.64 deaths per year during that 25-year timeframe. Comparatively, in 2017 alone there were 5,147 U.S. workplace deaths due to all causes. 

That holds true even as the use of industrial robots has increased dramatically. More and more people use robots, but there has been no corresponding increase in the total number of robotic-related fatalities. In the rare instances where accidents involving robots have occurred, typically industry-accepted standards were not followed. This is a testament to the industry’s commitment to safety—and to A3’s work on global safety standards.

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 the Internet of Things (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 deploy 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.
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 issues or for remote field environments, for example.  

Making environments more comfortable

One lesson companies have taken to heart in recent years: things are more comfortable when workers have more personal space. A little extra breathing room in an industrial environment gives workers a sense of autonomy. This is possible in large part thanks to automation. 

One buzzworthy example is truck-unloading robots. Honeywell introduced one in 2019. 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 while workers—no longer cooped up and focused on mundane work—handle more interesting tasks. 
Another noteworthy application 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). Knowing where and when employees have to share crowded spaces allows companies to adjust best practices to give everyone more room—or, when possible, to identify areas to renovate. In the event of an airborne illness, employers can quickly identify points of exposure so sick workers can be sent home. Another application could be monitoring employees to deter theft and improve productivity.

Taking the danger out of inspection and maintenance

High voltage lines, pipelines, industrial boilers—all of these and more require constant attention and repair. Inspecting and maintaining these kinds of equipment are some of the most dangerous jobs an employee can perform. Fortunately, as drones and AI grow more advanced and affordable, automating those jobs has become easier than ever. And the more of these tasks drones perform, the less humans are exposed to hazardous conditions. 

Consider cell tower inspection. Cell towers can reach heights of 100 feet or more, with countless bolts and connections to check for wear and tear. The climb alone is an exhausting proposition. Add in the manual inspection, plus any human hours spent going over photographs later, and you have a very difficult, dull and dangerous job. 

Now, drones can easily swoop up and down the structures, snapping photos as they go. AI software can review the images and flag damage, which can then be fixed by human technicians. That’s two of the most time-consuming tasks, both taken care of with no human intervention, minimizing how long technicians have to spend onsite. No wonder South Korea’s largest telecommunications company is using drones and AI to maintain its towers—or that AT&T is gearing up to do the same thing.

Automation’s role in enhancing physical health in healthcare 

Simplifying surgery

Automation has numerous applications in healthcare—and one of the most significant is the robotic surgical assistant. These robots have been around and evolving since the early 2000s and their capabilities just keep advancing. Robot arms can move in all directions and mimic the natural movements of a human hand, all without any of the tremors that might complicate delicate procedures. Plus, robots allow surgeons to operate in a relaxed sitting position, preventing the fatigue that would otherwise occur during long surgeries. 

Finally, ever-more sophisticated 3D vision offers better depth perception and spatial awareness than traditional laparoscopy. Working in tandem with surgeons, robotic assistants can help deliver better outcomes and shorter recovery times. Procedures as common as gallbladder removal and as complex as heart surgeries are safer and more effective than they’ve ever been. That’s good news for patients and doctors alike.

Preventing injuries during inventory management

Inventory management can be dangerous work. Think about forklifts. They’re a mainstay in warehouses around the world—and according to OSHA, forklift accidents cause tens of thousands of injuries a year. AMRs can easily take on that risk so humans don’t have to. Of course, forklift accidents aren’t the only risk employees deal with. Even at its safest, lifting and moving inventory is repetitive, tiring work. When robots can handle the heavy lifting (no pun intended), humans are less likely to suffer repetitive motion injuries. 

There’s also inventory tracking and ordering, which automation makes more efficient and more accurate. As we’ve seen in retail operations, robots can do more than just clean up spills or help out customers—they can also send alerts when inventory is low. Management can then order more of a specific item without ever checking the back room’s shelves, or software can do the ordering for them.

Improving mental health through automation

Taking the stress out of low-value, high-volume tasks

We’ve mentioned the promise of Robotic Process Automation (RPA) in the past—and it only continues to improve. For example, take regulatory compliance in the pharmaceutical industry. Keeping track of regulations, much less complying with them, is a mentally taxing task. A vast web of rules is in place and varies from country to country. Any given firm has to comply with all of them as it collects data, applies for licenses, generates documentation and monitors supply chains. It’s incredibly important work—failure to comply can incur huge fines or worse—but daunting for a human being to perform. 

That’s why Merck Life Sciences began leveraging RPA in 2021. Accuracy skyrocketed, documents were delivered faster than ever—and 121,000 human hours were saved. That’s a lot less stress over minute details and a lot more time for more fulfilling work.

See these trends—and more—in action.

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 6-9, 2024 at McCormick Place in Chicago, Illinois, is the place to see it. Register for free today and experience the full spectrum of automation technologies and solutions—from traditional industrial applications to cutting-edge technologies. 

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