With OEM footprints stretching worldwide, consistency is key to tackling danger points in production

Safety in automotive manufacturing starts with boosting awareness about global safety requirements – which can be a tough ask, given the way some local engineering teams operate. According to George Schuster, TÜV-certified functional safety expert and senior industry consultant – safety at Rockwell Automation, this situation becomes more problematic when there is a disconnect between engineering and operational employees in the interpretation and application of safety specifications and frameworks. “This is due in part to the knowledge of the language used in safety specifications, with many engineers not being trained nor familiar with this type of work,” he says. “This makes analysing risks and hazards in new specs a lot more difficult.”

Gregg Clark, director of global safety and industrial hygiene at General Motors, agrees with Schuster that awareness is one of the key challenges that automotive manufacturers face in terms of safety within plants. He says, “We aim to increase awareness and empower employees globally to go beyond their standard safety procedures and take personal responsibility to speak up when they see something that could harm them or others. Our global teams embrace their standardised work and follow safety protocols as prescribed.”

He adds: “The challenge is to instil a sense of ownership and responsibility so that each team member proactively looks to see what could kill them or others and works to resolve the concern.”

A new look at old equipment
Other challenges relate to equipment and designs that both the manufacturer and supplier have deployed for some years. Staying on top of safety regulations requires a fresh look at older designs and rigorous analysis of hazards. “Manufacturers have been in business for a long time and so may have machinery that is not compliant with new and emerging regulations,” comments Schuster. “Often they don’t know where to start in terms of making this equipment compliant. Our goal is to help them create a plan to identify non-compliant equipment and to then build a business case for the costs that this will incur.

“Automotive manufacturing is a cost-conscious business, and we understand the requirements in terms of price optimisation. But we work not only on the process side in terms of risk assessment, audits, validation and training around awareness, but we also provide engineering tools that can make their machinery compliant.”

C4000, Sick

At sensor manufacturer Sick, Andre Hack, strategic industry manager, automotive industry, adds: “In recent years, we have seen the global harmonisation of safety concepts and safety standards throughout the plants for new installations, and the retrofitting of old machines to achieve the best protection in terms of safety for their employees. Manufacturers have also been challenged by the issue of different regulations for different local markets.”

As a result, many manufacturers are taking a more holistic approach to safety in their operational environment, guided by international standards such as ISU and IEC. They are creating globally compliant risk assessments and functional specifications that not only guide their own way of working, but also that of their suppliers. “Because these frameworks are global, it doesn’t matter where their plants and those of their suppliers are based, which helps to reduce variation across plants, as well as throughout the supply chain,” explains Schuster. “These frameworks also expand to emerging technology and how manufacturers ensure this stays compliant, as well as the design of machinery. In terms of equipment design, the approach is not just about improving safety, but also being more efficient, which is a change of thinking.”

A common theme when talking to automotive manufacturers about safety is the practices and processes of their supply chain and their importance, an area where Rockwell can help. “We have tools that can build up employees’ safety competency throughout the supply chain,” says Schuster. “We can also provide a better definition of their risk assessment methods, analysing hazards in a consistent way, as well as providing validation and verification of new and existing designs, and other functional requirements. Every company needs to build awareness of risks and hazards, as well as safety specifications through training and exposure, which Rockwell can provide.

Help close at hand

At Audi, the focus on health and safety led to the integration of a medical unit into the training centre at the OEM’s new plant in San José Chiapa, Mexico, to ensure that sick or injured employees are treated promptly. Under a development agreement, the Mexican government also built a hospital near the factory.

Making safety personal
General Motors is one company that is taking clear steps to improve employee safety, having overhauled its approach and policies in 2014. During this time, the company launched “It’s Personal. Own it.” – a new approach to workplace safety that makes safety personal for every employee and places the emphasis on returning every worker, contractor or visitor home safely.

“In 2014, General Motors launched a renewed focus on safety that is changing the culture at our sites around the world, while taking workplace safety to a new level,” says Clark. “It starts by making safety the personal responsibility of every employee at every location and goes above and beyond using the required safety gear to having employees proactively engaged in the safety of all who enter our sites. From a shift in strategies that help employees identify the events that could kill them to communications that include employees from around the world and their families, the approach is very personal.”

The launch of this new approach in 2014 included the first Global Safety Week, an annual event to celebrate workplace and product safety at manufacturing sites around the world. “The first event in 2014 included instructional displays, like forklift visibility modules that allowed participants to climb into a parked forklift and experience the multiple blind zones that trained drivers experience on every shift, to family activities and even home videos where the children of our global team members reminded their parents to return to them safely,” explains Clark. “The local engagement helped to make each team member stop and remember why safety matters.”

The company also created a new safety vision entitled ‘Live Values that Return People Home Safely. Every Person. Every Site. Every Day’. The ways this vision will be measured range from adherence to the zero fatality target; prompt communication and remedial response to any incidents; the prevention of any recurrence of an incident that could have led to a fatality; learning from such incidents; and the recording of the number of incidents per 100 full-time employees and contractors each year.

Aspiring to a healthier culture
Volvo Cars is another automotive manufacturer that revamped its health and safety strategy and programmes in 2014. Its new ‘Aspired Safety Culture’ leadership programme includes training and coaching in proactive safety culture, with the goal of encouraging greater team involvement in incident reporting and an increased focus on prevention, for example through improved risk observations.

The company started this as a pilot programme in Volvo Cars Body Components and Volvo Cars Ghent in the second quarter of 2014. This year, the programme will be rolled out globally to all Volvo Cars locations, including China. The programme is also integral to the OEM’s aim of achieving a lost-time case rate (LTCR) of 0.1 by 2020. In 2014, the LTCR decreased by 45% and was at an all-time low of 0.34, with a total of only 65 cases. This means that the number of injuries has decreased by 77% since 2007.

Other Volvo Cars safety initiatives include the continuous development of reporting tools, corrective actions and organisational structure, as well as a TIA internet-based system for reporting incidents and risk observations. This system was launched in Sweden in 2013 and implemented globally in 2015. Last year, the near-misses and risk observations reported through TIA consisted of 46,311 cases.

The supply chain is another area of focus for Volvo Cars. In 2014, in each of its reconstruction projects in Sweden, the company held meetings with suppliers to identify and mitigate health and safety risks. During 2014, no serious injuries occurred in any of the projects, but three injuries were sustained among its contractors.

Allen-Bradley Kinetix 5500, Rockwell
Keeping robots under control
Technology plays a key role in enabling these safety programmes. According to Schuster, one area where the company is seeing increased interest from automotive manufacturers is in network productivity and a safe connection to the Ethernet. “This can be around delivering messages quickly when there is an issue, as well as wiring and connection,” he explains. “The focus here is not just on ensuring the wiring is safe, but also on improving performance, with latency and speed. And as automotive manufacturers increasingly invest in more products that connect to the network, such as robots, we can ensure the safety as these are added.”

To meet these needs, Rockwell Automation last year released the Allen-Bradley Kinetix 5500 servo drive with integrated safety. The features of the servo drive can meet demanding motion requirements such as those associated with robotics. The drive also uses the EtherNet/IP network for streamlined machine safety functions, which both improve personnel safety and increase machine uptime.

“In terms of advanced motion control and robotics, our technology can help ensure that these are safe by monitoring both safe positions and speeds, while improving the way that people and machines interact,” says Schuster. “This means that employees and robots can work closer together without safety issues, which in turn increases productivity. This increasing interaction between man and machine is a fundamental shift in automotive manufacturing operations.”

In May 2015, the company introduced the Allen-Bradley PowerFlex 527 AC drive, with an infrastructure which enables networked safety. This helps to reduce the hardware, wiring and labour costs associated with implementing a SIL 3/PLe safety solution. This networked safety allows access to more diagnostic data on machine safety faults and causes, without requiring contactors or relays. This is the first Allen-Bradley variable frequency drive to offer the capability. The drive also offers an embedded, safe torque ‘off’ function option for hardwired safety.

Security & safety converge
Sick’s PROFINET automation network is also helping to improve safety in automotive plants. “We offer network capability for automation networks like PROFINET via gateways or directly integrated in safety sensors,” says Hack. “Other features that our solutions offer include standardised connectivity and mechanical design for fast installations and commissioning, and enhanced communication between the safety sensors and the safety controllers to optimise the functions and reduce the numbers of devices. Meanwhile, we also reduce the number of safety component variants, as well as offer features for easy commissioning and intuitive configuration, and intelligent, pre-engineered application oriented solution packages, for example for tyre curing presses.”

This technology taps into one emerging trend that Schuster says has yet to come to fruition: the convergence between safety and security. “Both have similar characteristics and represent risk to an automotive manufacturer’s finances, supply chain, IP, workers, systems, etc, so both require similar risk management tools and methods,” he explains.

Even with these advancements and developments, Schuster believes that the automotive industry has a long way to go to recognise the value and paybacks of investment in safety. “This will require a change in culture within organisations, as the technology, tools, global specifications and engineering designs are already available that would allow them to make a real change. Industry leaders need a better understanding and a sort of gut feeling that would allow them to deploy these parts in the right way.

“Now that we have the data to support the payback that investment in safety brings, we will see more systems being developed and opportunities being developed, leading to the issue of operational safety becoming second nature to automotive manufacturers.”