Safer by design

Safer by design

Revolutionary advances in tube and pipe cutting safety can be a direct result of the evolutionary nature of product development.

by Bill Atkinson

It’s remarkable how fast changes occur in devices we utilize in our everyday lives. Living in an era of seemingly boundless innovation, new products are introduced and then continuously refined by driving forces such as competition, regulation, improved technology, liability, labor, material costs, and consumer demand.

Amazingly, many life-defining inventions can progress from a creative inspiration to something recognized worldwide in a single lifetime. Many people born in 1906 (the year the Wright Bros. were issued their flying machine patent) witnessed astronaut Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon in 1969, a mere 63 years later.

It’s a sad and ironic fact that many of the essential devices we enjoy at home or work can trace their origins back to darker days of the conflict. The computer was conceived to decrypt enemy messages. The unimaginable danger of early aviators clashing in wood and canvas airplanes eventually culminated in the marvels of modern air travel where virtually any place on earth is within reach if you so desire.

While changes in aircraft have been dramatic, the automobile is a better example to illustrate the evolutionary nature of product safety. When “horseless carriages” first appeared they were hardly faster than their horse-drawn counterparts. The first cars were largely open affairs. It wasn’t long before consumers demanded a closed compartment to protect them from wind, bugs, dust, and the elements. With low power and speed, seat belts were not conceived of until much later when increased performance (and shocking fatality statistics) made them mandatory.

Over the years automobile companies competed for style and comfort, believing that “big and solid was logically safer” in car design. That notion was short-lived as global energy concerns created an increasing demand for fuel economy. That’s when technology stepped in, providing a computer aided solution. The “crumple zone” theory for improved crash safety proved very effective with smaller, lighter vehicles and is still in use today. Letting a car absorb impact was safer than a rigid structure.

In the development of automobiles, the aspect of safety was not the prime focus until public safety expectations and liabilities resulted in ever-increasing standards and regulations.
Once initiated, manufacturers needed to comply and promote their own safety features to successfully compete and survive.

When Volkswagen decided in 1998 to reintroduce their iconic sedan designed as expedient transportation during WWII, it had been out of production since 1977. The manufacturer had to overcome a well-established (and well-deserved) negative reputation of coming out on the losing side when confronted with the big, heavy cars and trucks of the day. The little car had to undergo a metamorphosis. Despite it’s stylistic similarities, the folksy car that had been a cultural statement of utilitarian simplicity for an entire generation was completely redesigned to meet the demands of a safety-conscious public including a front-mounted engine and a multitude of air bags and safety features, enough to earn a 5-star Safety Rating from the U.S. government. The manufacturer knew that without that all-important endorsement, the earlier perceptions of questionable safety would doom the re-release of the car – before it had left the assembly line.

Today, futuristic marketing concepts are blurring the lines between car safety and extravagance with features that monitor and report your driving style, watch other cars to the side and back, shine headlights around corners, park themselves, alert you and brake when you are about to rear-end someone, and even lock the ignition if you fail a breath analyzer test. The difference today is that car companies have learned that driving safety is something that their progressively minded customers have come to expect and demand in newer model cars.

Safety awareness

In the workplace, equipment injuries are like anti-matter to a company’s reputation, despite how well their products perform.

All of today’s manufacturers, including the ones that produce machine tools for tube and pipe, are responding to the growing demands for product safety. For some industrial suppliers, it has been a hard learned lesson over time as their product line has progressed from an extremely vertical, special application solution, to more standardized, widely used machinery. Surprisingly, even though the promotion of product safety has been so glaringly evident in almost every walk of life, there are still those who do not comprehend the disastrous consequences of ignoring or resisting the incorporation of safety features in their new products.

Large, self-contained, floor-mounted pipe production and finishing machinery provide an excellent platform for comprehensive workstation safety. Smaller, portable tube and pipe machinery that is designed to mount into a pipe end for support have numerous rotating elements that can create unsafe “pinch points,” entangle clothing or power lines and can present a serious hazard to operator safety, especially when used in confined spaces.

Companies and their design engineering staff must make critical determinations on how their products are used (or misused). The use of tube and pipe cutting machinery, like countless other industrial equipment, always has the potential to result in serious injury. Occupational safety training programs are typically relied upon to mitigate many of the risks of complex, powerful rotating machinery through better operator education and hazard awareness. Potential known hazards are listed in product and operator manuals, but often these are best-practice guidelines incapable of covering all the possible situations and environments in which the equipment could be operated.

To a large extent, operator safety of powerful, industrial tube and pipe equipment cannot be built into a machine, especially when considering that machinery is not always used correctly or by a skilled, qualified operator. When machinery is used beyond its design limitations, used in a state of disrepair, used with incorrect bits or consumables, or improper accessories, the likelihood of operator injury is greatly increased.

With enlightened and responsible machine design, equipment makers can provide much higher levels of built-in safeguards to prevent many occupational hazards.

A manufacturer’s ability to introduce safety features or eliminate known hazards without compromising performance or precision ensures that their products are a compelling choice in a time when customers are fully aware of the extreme financial and medical consequences associated with workplace accidents.

Safety innovation

Clearly, the correct solution is for tube and pipe equipment manufacturers to consider the end user’s safety as foremost over any other aspect of the machine design. Designers need to constantly innovate to incorporate every practical safety solution into their product design as possible. This can be accomplished through thoroughly reviewing industrial accidents with the goal of preventing the occurrence. A more extensive dialog with equipment operators can reveal safety issues that they experience on a daily basis.

To those that would say the incorporation of increased safety features drives the machinery cost beyond reason, the real costs of a single accident could be many times the price of the safer machine, not to mention preventing an unnecessary human tragedy in lost life or limb.
The most revolutionary advancement in tube and pipe machinery design was a result of innovative thinking, combined with a full appreciation of increasing customer demands for operator safety.

“A dialog with equipment operators can reveal safety issues that they experience on a daily basis… a single accident costs more than a safer machine.”

With some tube and pipe cutting machinery, a problem has always existed when protruding, rotating elements on the outside surface pass closely past stationary structures on the machine body, or in the immediate surroundings such is the case when rotating machinery is operated in confined spaces creating “pinch points.” This issue has become increasingly hazardous with machines that offer higher performance through higher rotating speeds. Reduced cut times offer dramatically higher production rates, but this faster cutting speed sometimes means that the operator can be dangerously close to the rotating tool bit holders that pass in close proximity to power input structures and mounting elements.

The long-standing pinch point issue has been essentially eliminated by a new generation of advanced, high-performance tube and pipe cutting equipment that introduce patented proprietary bearings that permit the internalization of components that previously would have created pinch points. This is a major step forward in operator safety as the machine is considerably less prone to injure or entangle the operator or components in the immediate operation area.

Some conventional machinery has been produced to address this problem through the use of remote control pendants that permit the operator to be further away from the hazardous pinch points when the machine is rotating. This method is adequate when you have sufficient space to operate the machine from a further distance, but is more comparable to painting the ends of an airplane propeller for higher awareness of the spinning hazard. The better way to eliminate this hazard is by removing the rotating protrusions that caused the problem in the first place.

Cutting bit engagement controls and pneumatic, electric, or hydraulic motor input points should be located in a position as far as possible from any rotating elements of a machine. Rotating frames or headstocks should lock to prevent inadvertent load shifting. Whenever possible, the mechanical adjustment should be accomplished without requiring removal of parts from the tool (that could be possibly dropped onto workers below). Most importantly, safety should be sensible, practical and easy to perform in order to encourage the highest level of operator acceptance and cooperation.

Specifying and equipping your workforce with the safest tube and pipe equipment available can give you an invaluable competitive advantage when underwriting projects at the planning stage and contribute positively to a company’s overall safety rating, an important consideration for contract service providers.

In the mean time, car makers continue to promise that self-driving cars are on the horizon. Is this a clever marketing strategy to suggest that ultimate safety is achieved and guaranteed only by removing human error? If that’s the case, it’s possible that operator safety will become a moot point when machines cut and weld tubes and pipe on their own without any human interaction. We all know that machines never make mistakes or fail. Right?


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