Human error in an automated workplace

When a German bank clerk fell asleep at his desk with his finger on the keyboard, he accidentally withdrew €222,222,222.22 from a pensioner’s bank account instead of transferring €62.40. Luckily, a colleague later spotted his mistake and reversed it. Human error is problematic in manufacturing, as it is in banking, but are advances in automation ruling it out altogether?

Automation has been lauded by manufacturers and engineers everywhere as the answer to consistency and quality. It takes basic tasks out of human hands, giving employees the time to focus on more important tasks like business development and strategic initiatives. Even better is that robots can work around the clock, without getting tired. Manufacturers in particular are excited about automation ensuring large-scale consistency across their plants and enhancing the accuracy of their processes.

But if the move towards automated systems is meant to minimise error, why do mistakes still happen? Because we require humans and robots to work side by side, automation will never remove human error completely. So, what can manufacturers do to minimise it?

Programming and monitoring

We’re fallible creatures and one of the biggest causes of human error when working with technology is simply misunderstanding it. When you decide to automate a process, it requires programming — which needs to be free of bugs and glitches. It doesn’t matter if you’ve installed a machine transfer line to build car doors or are using programmable processes to batch produce computer chips, if your systems are incorrectly set up it can cause a chain of problems across your devices. Robots also perform many different tasks in a value chain and you may need to change their end effectors or programming in between. For example, they may be fitted with a laser for one precision task and then a 3-finger gripper for another.

Once it is set up, it is vital that all employees who will be interacting with or nearby to the robot are communicated with clearly and that all required training is given. If a member of staff does not know the difference between a collaborative robot, which stops or slows down when a human is nearby, and a non-collaborative robot, they could end up getting hurt.

Maintaining your technology

Another cause of human error when working with automated systems is maintenance. Manufacturers should proactively monitor a system’s performance, using predictive or preventative maintenance to identify if something is wrong. Robots are also at an increased risk of malfunction if maintenance is not performed when needed.

For example, if a part in the robot, such as the motor, is about to break down, the robot may begin to run at a different speed, which could impact the manufacturing of your products. Identifying this early on will enable you to order a replacement part from a reliable automation equipment provider, to get your system working as it should.

Robots do drastically reduce the risk of human error but they do not eliminate it entirely. While a robot can’t fall asleep with its finger on a keyboard, it can introduce error if it is not programmed or maintained correctly.