Media sensationalises VW worker killed in robot accident

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Robot-related fatalities in Western production plants are incredibly rare.

Following the terrible news that a worker was killed at a VW plant, In typical fashion, the UK media focused on short-term gains via attention grabbing headlines without recognising the potential long-term damage such tactics create.

With headlines including “Robot kills factory worker after picking him up and crushing him…” (Daily Mail), “Robot kills worker at Volkswagen Plant in Germany” (The Guardian), and “Worker killed by robot at Volkswagen car factory” (The Independent), the majority of the British press decided to afford the machine in question with sentient thought and apparently, a vindictive nature.

Presumably, such a move can only have been taken in an effort to stir up many (ill-informed) people’s fears regarding the increasing prevalence of automation and Terminator-style assumptions about the nature of modern machines.

So what actually happened? On Wednesday July 1, a technician (reported as being either 21 or 22-years of age) and his colleague were working to install a stationary robot at a Volkswagen production plant in Baunatal, north of Frankfurt. The site supplies components for other plants in the VW Group.

Apparently working within the safety cage, the Financial Times reports that the technician was ‘struck across the chest and subsequently pressed against a metal plate. He later died of his injuries in hospital.’

Volkswagen has stated that the robot didn’t suffer a technical failure and prosecutors have opened an investigation into how such an event could occur. At this early stage, it looks likely to have been caused by human error.

Credit has to go to The Financial Times (FT), which appears to be the only paper to use the terms struck and pressed. Every other outlet makes out the robot either picked up or grabbed the technician and crushed him. Words which may be far more emotive and sell newspapers, but don’t address people’s concerns over the wider adoption of more intelligent robots.

The FT is also one of the few to state quite clearly, and prominently, the rarity of “robot-related fatalities” in Western production plants, highlighting that heavy robots are typically “kept behind safety cages to prevent accidental contact with humans.”

The UK’s investment in automation has been severely lacking for some years now. There simply isn’t enough automation, and though the country is the world’s sixth-largest economy, we only just scrape into the global top 20 in regards to robotic use.

Automation InfographicWhy is probably the result of a whole host of factors, top of which are more than likely finance availability and the assumption that robots/automation result in job losses.

As Rauri McCallion wrote in last month’s issue of The Manufacturer, “If the last 250 years have taught the world anything, it is that automation creates jobs – the “leverage” factor has been estimated at 2.5 – 3.5 – and builds wealth.”

Automation and robotics also help to improve productivity, something that more than four-fifths (84%) of small and medium-sized manufactures have indicated needs to happen over the next sixth months if they are to achieve their growth plans.

Our sympathies certainly go out to the man’s family as a result of this tragic outcome.

However, statements such as “robot crushes man to death” aren’t helpful. They reinforce negative assumptions and perpetuate the idea that robots are something to be feared. They aren’t.