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Legal, contractual and ethical issues arise from increased robotics in manufacturing, says expert

Out-Law Analysis | 25 Aug 2016 | 3:08 pm | 4 min. read

FOCUS: The anticipated rise in the use of robots will force manufacturers to rethink contracts with technology suppliers to ensure risks stemming from their use can be passed on.

The number of robots in industrial operations across the world is forecast to increase in the coming years. The integration of robots into production processes will impact on traditional liability arrangements and raise a range of other legal issues for manufacturers to consider, including in relation to health and safety and data protection.

A rise in the number of robots in operation might also prompt social and ethical dilemmas which might impact on manufacturers. Policy makers have an important role to play in helping businesses navigate those issues.

Experts from Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, will be discussing robotics in manufacturing at the Financial Times Future of Manufacturing 2016 event in October.

The rise of robots

The cost of employing people is increasing. In the UK, minimum wage legislation continues to push up labour costs for businesses. Those rising costs are prompting companies, including manufacturers, to look at how technology can provide a more cost effective way of producing goods or delivering services.

Although robots are not cheap, advances in technology mean they are becoming more affordable, as well as more accurate and reliable than ever before.

Researchers at Sheffield University earlier this year described how they had "applied an automated programming method" to simultaneously control up to 600 robots and get them to carry out different tasks in a coordinated fashion.

The researchers claimed that their testing showed potential to reduce human error in conducting "relatively complex tasks" and said they intend to look further into how a group of robots can work collaboratively with people.

Robots and the legal environment

Rapid changes in technology, including in robotics, is forcing existing legal frameworks to be interpreted in ways which may not reflect their original intention and purpose.

The interaction between robots and people brings about new legal considerations in respect of health and safety regulations, data protection law compliance and the apportioning of risk and liability, for example.

Traditionally, when something has gone wrong with manufacturing machinery it could generally be traced to either a defect in the machine itself or to it being incorrectly operated. However, faults with modern machines, such as robots, might stem from a number of different contributing factors.

For example, it could be an issue with the machine, the hardware or software which forms a part of the machine, or the telecommunications which allow machines within the factory to communicate with one another. 

One of the best examples of how technology might change issues of liability can be found in the context of driverless cars. Manufacturers are looking into using the latest digital technologies to help vehicles run with only minimal or no human input. In those circumstances a number of different stakeholders could be liable for an accident.

It is important for those using robotic production lines, heavily reliant on a number of different technologies, to ensure that they have contractual arrangements in place with each machine or technology supplier. This will assist the manufacturer in being able to apportion liability and pass back any losses or costs which they incur as a result of any failures or outages. This could range from anything from personal injury of an employee to line stoppages resulting in damages being levied on the manufacturer by its own customers.

With this in mind, as manufacturing facilities become more reliant on technology and connectivity, manufacturers should ensure that they have robust business continuity and disaster recovery plans in place to reduce the adverse impact of outages and failures. Again, such a requirement should be built into the manufacturer’s contracts with its machinery and technology suppliers, and such plans should be tested and updated on a regular basis.

Manufacturers will also have to have new regard for how factory floor operations might raise compliance issues under data protection laws.

As robotic technology develops, any information a robot captures about employees, for example through a camera, microphone, or sensor, might be considered personal data and subject to data protection laws. Employees will need to be informed of this potential data collection and processing and manufacturers will need to ensure that any personal data captured by a robot is processed in a way which accords with relevant privacy rules.

Deploying robots in amongst a human workforce will also engage issues of health and safety. Recent changes to sentencing guidelines in the UK mean that large companies can anticipate heavy financial penalties if they are convicted of serious breaches of health and safety laws. Manufacturers must therefore ensure that that necessary policies and procedures are in place to manage how humans and robots interact.

Manufacturers will also have to be mindful of their duties under employment laws if they seek to replace human workers with robots. Those obligations include giving appropriate notice and consultation on redundancies. They will also want to ensure they manage the transition in a way that does not bring about any negative publicity.

Electronic business Foxxconn, a supplier to companies such as Apple and Samsung, has reportedly replaced 60,000 of its own staff with robots.

The displacement of the human workforce by robots raises broader ethical and sociological issues too.

There is a risk, for example, that increased automation will lead to mass unemployment and raise a multitude of social and economic issues that policy makers will have to grapple with. These might range from accounting for potentially lower tax revenues and higher levels of dependency on state-funded welfare, to incentivising training and development in highly skilled roles only people can fulfil.

As adoption and use of the technology becomes more common, there will be increasing calls to put in place regulatory frameworks expressly drafted with robot technology in mind. Those frameworks will need to strike a balance between allowing technology to develop and thrive and ensuring that humans and personal property are adequately protected. 

The speed of innovation will remain an issue for law makers, however. We have seen how the development and use of drones and the forthcoming testing of driverless cars have outpaced existing regulations, leaving 'grey areas' where it is difficult to interpret when and how such regulations should be applied.

Ben Gardner is an expert in robotics at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com. Experts from Pinsent Masons will be discussing robotics in manufacturing at the Financial Times Future of Manufacturing 2016 event in October.