Rise of robotics in manufacturing causes plethora of legal issues

Posted on 20 May 2022 by The Manufacturer

A rise in robotics in manufacturing creates novel legal issues that manufacturers will need to consider when introducing robotic solutions into the workplace, warns James Sarjantson, LCF Law’s digital, telecoms and commercial partner.

As more duties and tasks than ever before are being automated in manufacturing, it brings both advantages and disadvantages. Advantages include speed and accuracy of the production and operations process, helping to make things smarter and cheaper, but at the same time there is also an increase in risk and potential liability. According to a recent report from PwC, 56% of manufacturers are using some form of robotics technology, but one of the key issues facing manufacturers is – who is liable if something goes wrong with a robot?

Traditionally, when something went wrong with manufacturing machinery, it could generally be traced to either a defect in the machine itself or to the machine being incorrectly operated. However, in a robotic environment, faults might stem from the machine, or from the software which forms a part of the machine, or the systems which enable machines to communicate with one another, or from an intervention by a human operator.

This means that reviewing the contracts under which robotic lines are procured is more important than ever to ensure that manufacturers can apportion liability when it arises and recover any losses or costs which they incur as a result of any failures from the relevant supplier. Manufacturers will also need to make sure that they have insurance available to cover relevant additional risks.

The increased use of robotics will also have several data protection implications. This is because the information a robot captures about employees through a camera, microphone or sensor for example, is likely to be personal data. Manufacturers therefore need to ensure that any personal data captured by a robot is processed in a way which accords with relevant privacy rules and their own policies that tell employees how the employer will deal with their personal data.

Manufacturers will also need to be confident that the data and information captured by robotics is not being passed back to the supplier without authorisation.

Health & Safety is another key area of concern because deploying robots amongst a human workforce will naturally cause issues. Recent changes to sentencing guidelines mean that penalties for serious health and safety breaches can exceed £10m in some cases. Manufacturers must therefore engage with their health and safety advisers on this point and put appropriate policies and procedures in place.

The increased use of robotics also creates issues around obsolescence. Traditional machinery manufacturers are sometimes required by customers (who have sufficient bargaining power) to make spare parts available for perhaps 10 years, but this is very difficult when dealing with robotics where a key element may be third party software, which may become obsolete or unsupported quicker than that.

In terms of intellectual property, manufacturers must remember that while they may own the robot, they are likely to only get a licence to use the associated software. In the case of robots utilising AI, it is the user who is providing the data and stimuli which is facilitating the robot’s learning on site, but the user is unlikely to get any rights in respect of that.

Finally, if manufacturers seek to replace human workers with robots, they will of course need to follow all the relevant employment laws (including appropriate notice and appropriate consultation on any redundancies) and on a practical level will need to manage the transition in a way that limits any negative publicity.

As long as manufacturers carefully consider all these elements of risk and liability, the advantages of robotics will undoubtedly outweigh the disadvantages moving forward, but it’s essential that manufacturers take the appropriate legal advice and get all their ducks in a row – especially the robotic ones!

About the author

James SarjantsonLCF Law

James Sarjantson, is LCF Law’s digital, telecoms and commercial partner. With over 20 years’ experience in providing legal solutions for corporate clients in relation to selling, trading and commercial arrangements, particularly where they are technology-led. James regularly advises clients on IT & e-commerce contracts, distribution, agency & franchise agreements, supply contracts, data protection (GDPR) and Terms and Conditions of business. James also supports and advises clients on intellectual property rights including issues around trade marks, designs, copyright, patents, and trade secrets.

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