October 8, 2018

The rise of the machines

As the use of robots in industry continues to increase, we explore some of the legal issues which may be faced in the manufacturing sector.

Liability for issues caused by the robots

As the robots themselves and the way in which they communicate with one another become more complex, the issue of apportioning liability for problems caused by the robots will also become more difficult.

There was a time when a problem with a piece of manufacturing machinery could be traced back to a fault in the machine itself or to the way the machine was operated. In more modern times, a problem with a robot may stem from the robot itself, from its hardware, its software, the telecommunications which enable it to communicate with other robots, or any of the other innumerable components in the process of production.

A recent example of the difficulty which can arise in apportioning liability involves the much-reported case of a Tesla car which was involved in a collision. The driver alleges that the vehicle was in 'auto-pilot mode' a computer-assisted mode designed to reduce the risk of collisions. Tesla suggest that the collision was caused by human error. In that case a number of different stakeholders could be liable for the collision. The issue of apportioning liability may become even more pronounced as driverless cars enter the market.

From a manufacturer’s perspective, it is important to understand how the various components and processes of robotic technology interact with one another and to have clear contractual arrangements in place for who takes responsibility for each distinct component and process. This is likely to help a manufacturer to identify the cause of a problem and to apportion liability when costs are incurred as result of any failures or outages (for example, the personal injury of a member of staff, errors in production, or lost production time due to the malfunction of some element of the robotics). These contractual arrangements will need to be reviewed regularly to ensure they remain relevant and take account of advances in technology and changes in processes. This is especially the case in instances where the robots have been provided by one company but are maintained by another separate company. In these circumstances, where a fault arises it may not be immediately clear who is responsible for the error and may give rise to more complex arguments of liability especially in instances where it transpires that a design fault has been compounded by poor maintenance – the work of two separate companies.

It is therefore vital for manufacturers to ensure comprehensive contracts are in place that clearly detail what party is responsible for losses incurred by the parties in the event of any errors occurring.

Employment law

As robots become capable of completing ever more complex tasks without human input, it is possible that in time these may replace human workers who would have previously carried out a similar job role. In these instances, manufacturers will also have to be mindful of their duties under employment legislation, including giving appropriate notice and consulting on redundancies, if needed.

In recent years it has become possible that in its simplest format robots may take on the more repetitive tasks on a production line, for example simple assembly of products, allowing employees to complete the more complex tasks and therefore diversifying their job roles slightly. This can reduce margin of human error and therefore have a positive impact on the bottom line as well as improving employee motivation if their jobs are diversified. Cost savings in each stage of the manufacturing process or even over a couple of stages can lead to significant improvements in profitability over the course of a robots life.

For the time-being, especially amongst smaller manufacturers, it is more likely that any robots will continue to work alongside employees rather than replace them, deriving the name co-bots as a result. Manufacturers need to consider how the two can work harmoniously together. It may be necessary to update job descriptions for employees as well as any employee handbooks to reflect these incremental changes in human job roles and to clearly define any new roles and responsibilities employees may have as result. Doing so will provide maximum protection to the business as an employer in the event an employment dispute arises.

Adapting to the change

It is likely that technological development in robotics will soon outpace regulatory provision (if it has not already done so). As the use of robotics becomes ever more common, there will be an increased need for regulatory provision which have been drafted with robotic technology in mind. This regulatory framework will need to draw a balance between promoting technological innovation while at the same time ensuring that humans and personal property are adequately protected.

If you are considering the use of robotics within your manufacturing business, or if you are concerned that your contracts don’t fully cover the items discussed within this article then contact Holmes & Hills for legal advice from contract, employment and litigation specialists, to ensure that you are covered against all eventualities.

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