Machine Safety: Has the era of cageless robots begun?

Could safeguarding become a requirement of the past? Baxter who? See the list of technology highlights in the past 40 years. Is OSHA keeping up with manufacturing technology innovations?


Michael Lewis, senior mechanical engineer with Rethink Robotics, said his company uses SolidWorks. Here he demonstrates Baxter, Rethink Robotics’ easy-to-teach, low-speed, collaborative robot. Courtesy: CFE Media’s Mark T. HoskeCould safeguarding become a requirement of the past? Have we arrived at a time to be amazed at every turn? Has technology advanced over night surprisingly to most of us? Baxter who?

My career, and possibly yours, has seen significant technological advancements throughout industry. Some highlights include:

1. Programmable logic controllers (PLCs)

2. Robots

3. Networks

4. Drive systems

5. Safety automation

6. Safe wireless

7. and now, collaborative robots… like “Baxter,” from Rethink Robotics.

These highlights I’ve witnessed cover the past 40-plus years. However, during the same period machine guarding has always included “hard guards” to protect humans from hazards and possibilities of injury. As technology has advanced, design standards like IEC 61508 have been developed for hardware and software based devices intended for safety applications, that is, safety PLCs. Still, as safety automation devices ramped into the market after 2002, hard guarding for machine safety continued to be required as a solution for safety compliance.

Baxter on the job kitting parts at a plastics manufacturing facility. Courtesy: Rethink Robotics

Until now! Has “Baxter” introduced industry to a new level of innovation leaving hard guarding in the sunset? Control Engineering’s article on Jan. 24, 2013, “Baxter the robot,” by Peter Welander, points out that man can now work in a collaborative way shoulder to shoulder with Baxter without hard guards – cageless. Does this also mean that robotic standards like RIA 15.06 or ISO 10218-1 will allow collaborative robotic applications for safety compliance? [See other articles linked below about robotic safety.]

Can the horseless carriage of OSHA’s 29 CFR Regulations keep up with this evolution in machine safety innovation? The majority of OSHA’s regulations are still worded today as they were created in the 1970’s despite the innovations cited above.

What are your thoughts regarding the future of cageless machine safety? Is this a sign that hard guarding might be phasing out in the future?

Has this presented you with any new perspectives? Do you have some specific topic or interest that we could cover in future blog posts? Add your comments or thoughts to the discussion by submitting your ideas, experiences, and challenges in the comments section below.

Related articles:

Baxter the robot,” by Peter Welander, Control Engineering

Safety and control in collaborative robotics, by Tanya Anandan for Control Engineering

Universal Robots collaborate outside enclosures, edited by Mark Hoske, CFE Media

Machine Safety: Updating ISO 13849-1 & compliance for robots

Contact: for “Solutions for Machine Safety”.

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