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OM in the News: Worker at Volkswagen Plant Killed By Robot

July 2, 2015

robot A technician was killed by a robot at a VW plant in Germany yesterday, reports The Financial Times (July 2, 2015), in a rare accident that touches on concerns about the spread of automation and its impact on jobs. The 21-year-old was installing the machine when he was struck in the chest by the equipment and pressed against a metal plate. The fatality comes as concerns spread about the effects of automation, including fears about whether robots can be controlled when they become more intelligent than humans.

Deaths in factories caused by automated equipment date back decades, but robot-related fatalities are rare as heavy robots are kept behind safety cages to prevent accidental contact with humans. In this incident, the worker was standing inside the safety cage when the accident occurred. VW said the robot did not suffer a technical defect. The machine was not one of the new generation of lightweight collaborative robots that car manufacturers are installing to work alongside workers. Collaborative robots do not have a safety cage but their force and speed can be limited by the way they are built. They also have sensors to detect human movement. Some are also designed to stop if a human gets too close.

VW said last year it planned to use more robots to cope with a shortage of new workers as baby boomers retire in coming years. These robots would take over monotonous tasks, while humans would focus on more highly skilled jobs. The car industry has by far the highest density of robots, but such automation is increasing rapidly in other industries as their cost falls and capabilities increase.

Fatality rates in manufacturing are below the average for the economy as a whole, and have been falling as automation has increased. There were 2.1 fatal injuries for every 100,000 full-time equivalent employees in manufacturing in the US in 2013, down from 2.7 in 2006. (It is about 8 times more dangerous to work in a bar  where the fatality rate there is 16.4 deaths per 100,000 employees.)

Classroom discussion questions:

1. Why are robots an important part of production at VW?

2. What is a collaborative robot?

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