Legal Perspective: Smart Robotics in Manufacturing

The rise of the Industry 4.0 raises various ethical, legal, and social dilemmas. I’ve come across a paper by an international law firm, Pinsent Masons, called Future of Manufacturing: The emerging legal challenges. I find this paper very intriguing as it covers a wide range of potential issues in consideration of different aspects of Industry 4.0 – the implementation of various new emerging technologies from IoT to 3D printing to robotics to an overarching concept of smart environments in manufacturing and across the whole supply chain. The issues mentioned in the paper concern four major legal instruments: data protection laws, employment laws, health and safety laws, and contracts. For example, data is the key to Industry 4.0; sensors and smart devices are being used to collect data from employees and users for various purposes such as productivity optimisation, product evaluation and improvement or communication between human workers and machines. However, when it comes to collecting and analysing data, this directly threatens the data protection laws, especially the personal data aspect. Accordingly, organisations increasingly adopt and implement new technologies as they appear to be more cost efficient than employing people. Technologies could be viewed as human-worker replacements which will potentially result in layoffs, leading organisations to face difficult decisions in consideration of their obligations under the employment laws. Additionally, organisations will run the risk of breaching health and safety laws if there is no adequate health and safety procedures following the implementation of new technologies like smart robotics for employees. Lastly, liability in a traditional sense might become problematic as if something has gone wrong it could stem from various contributing factors, such as, maloperation, defect in manufacturing machines which could either be the hardware or software that are part of the machine, and a glitch in the operating system. The question then will be to determine who is liable for costs of damages in terms of workers’ injuries, final product defects, shipment delays, or any other reasons causing organisations to breach the contractual terms with their clients: Will it be the organisation’s worker’s fault for incorrectly operating the system? Will it be the supplier who manufactures the machines? Will it be the company who designs the operating system? As different technologies become more integrated, a number of stakeholders could be liable for the incident. Thus, organisations must ensure to form robust contractual arrangements with technology suppliers in order to apportion liability and minimise losses. Nonetheless, this paper only scratches the surface of the potential issues, which inspires me to research further into the legal challenges in a specific area of this so-called the fourth industrial revolution.

In alignment with the Digitop project, my PhD research focuses on the legal implications of the use of smart robotics in digital manufacturing with the ultimate goal of designing an agile digital toolkit to support organisation through the implementation of legal and ethical smart robotics in the workforce. Although emerging technologies like smart robots are re configuring organisational practices and responsibilities, the regulation and policy have yet to adequately reflect these changes. Hence, there is a need for a digital toolkit in respect to robotics and legal compliance framework in order to help firms prevent future legal pitfalls and mitigate risks. Being a part of Digitop team allows to me meet with experts in different fields and have connections with great industry partners which will contribute greatly to the development of my first prototype of legal digital toolkit.

Natalie Leesakul
PhD Student
Horizon, University of Nottingham

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