At machinery maker VMI, Jan Grashuis notes a real trend towards giving worker safety a much higher priority in almost every country, and the elimination of many activities seen as acceptable 10 years ago.
“In the EU and North America the key factor is regulation, but we also see changes in south Asia, where regulations are less robust,” said Grashuis.
Another important driver is the desire of ambitious companies to partner with global OEMs.
“To be a strategic supplier to a major automotive company, you have to reach the highest standards for safety as well as for everything else,” said the VMI executive.
“VMI sees standards being levelled up,” he continued. “We comply with the highest safety standards in the world as an EU manufacturer and we apply the same standards everywhere we operate.”
Tire makers and their machine suppliers, however, need to strike the right balance between safety, productivity, efficiency and machine ergonomics.
“Difficulties arise when you reverse-engineer safety features into an existing machine,” said Grashuis. “This does not work well and can give operators an incentive to break the rules to keep productivity high.”
The way forward, he said, lies in adaptive safety systems that enable operators to interact with the machine without stopping it or jeopardising their safety: “The technical changes now driving improved safety standards are almost all coming from systems enabled by sensors that adjust machine operation to the position and actions of the operator.”
For VMI, so, a key challenge is to design equipment with fully-integrated safety systems that help the operator to do their job better, while also keeping them safe. This means eliminating any perceived conflicts between productivity and safety so the operator has no reason to by-pass the system.
Looking forward, Grashuis sees control technology, and the flexibility that it allows, as offering the most potential for improving the safety of tire/rubber manufacturing.
He points, for example, to VMI’s ActiZones which uses PLCs to enable the machine to run at a safe speed, while disabling potentially dangerous moves as the operator gets closer.
“The machine adapts to the person, not vice versa,” comments the VMI expert.
Likewise, he said, hands-off technology makes it unnecessary for the operator to get close to moving parts: “By automating processes, operator interaction with the machine is cut to a minimum. This has a huge impact on safety, as it keeps the operator away from moving parts.”
Grashuis concluded: “Tire and rubber industries are moving towards a smart-factory or Industry 4.0 approach, with an emphasis on interconnected cyber-physical systems. This will reduce the role of people in manufacturing, while extending the use of intelligent machines programmed to avoid accidents.”