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Machine or man for safety design?

Pilz Australia has been rallying for safe industrial design for over a decade. Sarah Falson spoke with managing director Frank Schrever about the company’s renewed focus.

“We’ve been trying to push back the frontiers for safe design engineering for a decade now, to raise awareness of the importance of reducing risk at the engineering level,” said Pilz Australia managing director, Frank Schrever.

One of the 24 subsidiaries of family-owned firm Pilz, based in Germany, Pilz Australia started its life in Schrever’s living room in 1998, and has grown to become one of the Australian market leaders for safety PLCs.

“If you rely on the inconsistency of humans, your process is going to fail,” said Schrever. “The reliability of a trained human doing a familiar job is approximately one mistake in every 100. How can you run a manufacturing business like that?”

Pilz designs and manufactures safety relays, sensors, and monitoring and control gear for industrial businesses around the world. The Australian subsidiary, headed by Schrever, is located in Mt Waverley, Victoria, and employs 20 staff members. Globally, Pilz employs 1,300 people and puts a great deal of time and money into research and development, with 30 per cent of the German staff involved in this space, according to Schrever.

The company began developing programmable logic controllers (PLC) in the late 1960s, and invented the world’s first safety relay in the mid-1980s. These developments have formed the basis of the company’s reputation in industrial safety.

But Pilz isn’t focused solely on safety. The Australian subsidiary’s tenth birthday has coincided with a change-of-course for the industrial products manufacturer, which unveiled a new development called the PSS4000: a one-stop-shop control and safety solution for manufacturing and process plants which fuses real-time motion control, visualisation for process visibility, and a diagnostics system which responds quickly to faults. It is also programmable in all five IEC 61131 languages and offers Pilz’s Multi editor. With these features combined, the PSS4000 is set to catapult Pilz out of its safety niche, into the world of full-blown automation systems.

“For 61 years, Pilz has been trying to raise awareness of reducing plant risk by design. We don’t believe in tacking on a separate safety system that isn’t thought-through properly. We think about safety in terms of productivity; a safety system should enable the process to become more successful while also protecting the plant’s workers,” Schrever said.

Automation design

Pilz’s local business serves customers in Australia, New Zealand and Fiji, and functions on a ‘direct-to-market’ basis. The company has a number of specialist integrators to perform product installation and support for Pilz, but by-and-large the company uses its own highly-trained technical staff to support its offerings.

Schrever came from a metallurgist background, and has been working in the scientific, instrumentation and process control markets for over 30 years. Schrever believes that being a sales executive is a key component of the managing director’s role at Pilz, and he spends a lot of his time visiting customers, conducting AS4042 safety training seminars, and generally championing the cause for ‘safety by design’.

For Schrever, the launch of the new PSS4000 represents an opportunity for the supplier to access new industrial customers, such as the mining, materials handling, water and wastewater, and energy management industries — all of which have remained buoyant amid the economic downturn.

“The primary objective of the PSS4000 is to be the leading safety automation system. Pilz has been involved in all types of control since its inception, so the complete platform of the PSS4000 is a natural progression for the company,” he said.

According to Schrever, the mining industry has been the slowest area to invest in safety by design. But mining firms would do well to notice the benefits that the manufacturing industry has enjoyed from implementing industrial safety, rather than just relying on human behavior, he said.

“The manufacturing industry has proven that removing risk by design is necessary, in that their ‘incidents’ are much less than in the mining arena. Mines should think seriously about removing risk by design, before depending on human behaviour to control it. If you depend of humans for risk control, your process will fail,” he said.

Safety frontiers

While Pilz isn’t the only company supplying safety control in Australia, it is probably one of the most tech-savvy in terms of safety design principles. Having specialised in industrial safety for over 60 years, the company can offer its customers extremely specialised advice and service in a variety of industries.

“We spend a lot of time thinking about how to make the process more productive and more convenient. In my ten years with Pilz, I haven’t come across an industrial situation for which we couldn’t achieve a more productive process, by using the right thinking,” Schrever said.

“But, all too often, suppliers slap-on a solution that somehow makes the process more awkward and therefore plant personnel might seek to bypass the system; and this is how accidents happen. In this regard, I think we are a step ahead of our competitors,” Schrever said. “There are commonly-occurring incidents in which workers have been restricted in their normal job because a slap-dash safety solution has been implemented, forcing them to work around it and expose themselves to the risk once more.”

According to Schrever, all areas of Australian industry — not just mining — require more education about safety control solutions. Though media has a big role to play in the education of industry, government and educational institutions also have an onus to educate the masses, Schrever said.

“Particular companies, such as one of our approved systems integrators Sage Automation, are working very hard to educate industry about the importance of safety by design. They operate a didactic centre that teaches high school students about automation,” he said.

Though initiatives like this are a good “ground swell” for the education of minors, according to Schrever, educational bodies also have a role to play.

“The Government is moving in the right direction by organising technical training in secondary schools. It has to start at school level so students really understand what is involved in automation and also understand that it is quite sophisticated,” he said.

However, machine safety and safety design is all but forgotten in educational institutions, Schrever said, representing a major — and dangerous — gap in training.

“There isn’t any training at all in Australia on safe design engineering principles: anywhere. That’s why the AS 4024 safety training seminars that Pilz is involved with are in such high demand; because we know about safe design and there is no-one else out there teaching it,” he said.

“It’s staggering. Engineers and electricians have obligations, by law, in every state in Australia, to reduce risk in engineering, before they start relying on human behaviour. So why hasn’t the education system taken this up? Graduates come out legally having to analyse risk and remove it by design, but they don’t know how to do it.”

According to Schrever, the Australian manufacturing and process industry is extremely advanced, so there’s no excuse for ‘playing dumb’. “Technology is at a very high level in Australia: we recognise that we need to automate or bust. We require very smart control solutions and there is a lot of effort, across the board, put into developing smart labour-saving solutions that allow us to be more competitive as a manufacturing country.”

For Schrever, media, government and industry bodies need to work together to provide education and awareness of the manufacturing and processing industries in Australia, if there is to be a hope of making safety design principles a key part of trainee learning.

“There is a high level of automation and control education in Australia, and we have good people. But manufacturing is not seen as the industry that graduates would like to go in to. They see it as a dirty industry, but it isn’t,” he said.

“There’s a very, very high level of automation and sophistication these days, and students should get involved in manufacturing, because it still employs twice the number of people that mining does, and makes a larger contribution to the GDP [gross domestic product].”

The Pilz PSS4000 was officially launched in Melbourne last month, and is available now. The company has also launched a new safe 3D imaging system called the SafetyEYE, which uses image analysis to control industrial machinery and process lines.

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