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Workplace Material Handling & Safety Interview with FORT Robotics CEO, Samuel Reeves

WMHS: What role does FORT play in material handling?

Samuel: FORT provides wireless safety and security solutions for customers across the material handling industry. At the OEM level, we work with developers of autonomous mobile robots, automated forklifts, and others who want to build wireless safety and control into their machines. We also have products, like our Wireless Emergency Stop, that can be installed on existing machines to help increase safety at warehouses and distribution centers.

WMHS: What are the advantages of wireless safety in smart machine deployments?

Samuel: Basically, when machines are mobile, the safety system needs to be wireless. If you have people and machines or robots working together and moving around in the same space, the people in that space need to be able to intervene if something unexpected happens. What you don’t want is someone running towards danger to stop a machine. So a system that allows for immediate intervention from a distance is key.

In the past, safety could be handled differently because machines were largely bolted to the floor, set behind a cage, or moving along a set route. But today’s machines are so much more advanced, they need a more sophisticated solution. They’re using advanced AI to work autonomously, and they’re moving freely in and out of spaces with people and other machines– there’s a lot of potential for unexpected scenarios where remote emergency stopping can help minimize a potentially hazardous situation. Wireless safety provides that necessary line of defense if something should go wrong.

WMHS: What’s different about FORT’s safety solutions?

Samuel: We’re applying the principles of functional safety to new solutions that are specifically designed for the next-generation machines common to the industry 4.0 evolution. Our core technology is our method for sending safety signals over wireless in a reliable way. This means that, for example, you can send an e-stop command over Wifi or LTE or ISM radios, and command equipment to a safe state using IEC 61508 certified systems.

Another thing that sets us apart is our focus on security. With more machines connected to networks, cybersecurity is becoming a huge safety issue. A bad actor gaining access to a robot system could cause an incredible amount of damage or even fatal accidents. So we make sure that machines can authenticate any message and verify that it’s from a trusted source.

WMHS: What is functional safety and why is it important for smart machine deployment?

Samuel: Functional safety is a part of the overall safety of a system that leads to freedom from unacceptable risk of physical injury, or of damage to the health of people, by the proper implementation of one or more automatic protection functions. You want to have specific, measurable protections in place so that if there’s a failure– a human error, a hardware malfunction, an unexpected incident– the machine will behave in a defined and predictable manner.

It’s important for a number of reasons. Most importantly– functional safety can help prevent accidents and save lives. There are more than 4.6 million workplace injuries every year in the United States, so it’s impossible to overstate the value of worksite safety, especially around big machines. And it’s especially important for smart machines because these systems often are doing more with less human supervision. So reliable, predictable operation is essential to managing risk and building trust.

WMHS: Why do companies rely on FORT for safety solutions?

Samuel: Companies work with us because they need a trusted partner, and they know that we’re experts in safety. FORT actually grew out of another robotics company with more than a decade of experience in wireless safety, working in one of the most dangerous applications in the world– landmine clearance. We apply that same level of rigor to solving safety challenges for material handling.

Essentially, we take on the heavy lift of functional safety because that’s what we do best. And that frees up our customers to focus on what they do best, whether that’s building AMRs or running distribution centers. We help our customers to get the most value out of their smart machine systems without sacrificing safety.

WMHS: What advice would you give companies that are considering adding smart machines to their worksite?

Samuel: First of all, I’d say do it, and do it soon. Smart machines are transforming virtually every industry on the planet, and it’s going to be hard to stay competitive without them.

Second, make sure you have a plan that accounts for safety. That means thinking about a lot of things: regulations, hazard analysis, emergency preparedness, cybersecurity, liabilities. It can be pretty daunting, so my advice would be to work with a partner that’s an expert in safety to help you deploy quickly and reliably.

Taking safety into consideration before you start a project is ten times easier than trying to account for it at the end, or after an incident. A comprehensive safety solution will not only give you peace of mind, it will enhance operations and help you get the best return on your robotic investment.

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