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Legal Issues arising from the Increased Use of Robotics in Manufacturing

LCF Law | Robotics in Manufacturing Disputes | Thomas Taylor | LeedsManufacturers around the world are increasing their use of robots. Indeed, according to the Office of National Statistics, around 1.5 million jobs in England are at high risk of  their duties and tasks being automated in the near future. While there are numerous advantages to the use of robotics in the manufacturing process, not least an increase in the speed and accuracy of the production process, this is at the same time creating interesting new legal issues that manufacturers will need to consider when introducing robotic solutions into the workplace.

Risk & Liability

One key issue is who is liable if something goes wrong with the 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 telecommunications which allow machines within the factory to communicate with one another, or from an intervention by a human operator.

This mean 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.

Data Protection

The increased use of robotics will also have data protection implications. This is because information a robot captures about employees (e.g. through a camera, microphone or sensor) is likely to be personal data. Manufacturers will 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

Deploying robots in amongst a human workforce will also engage health and safety issues. Recent changes to sentencing guidelines mean that penalties for serious health and safety breaches can exceed £10 million in some cases. Manufacturers must therefore engage with their health and safety advisers on this point and put appropriate policies and procedures in place.

Maintenance

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 (if not necessarily obsolete) at least unsupported more quickly than that.

Intellectual Property

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.

Employment Law

Finally, if manufacturers seek to replace human workers with robots, they will of course need to give 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 (perhaps inevitable) negative publicity.

What can we do to help?

For advice in respect of any of the issues raised in this article, please contact either James Sarjantson on 0113 201 0401 – ku.oc1701752411.fcl@1701752411nostn1701752411ajras1701752411j1701752411 or Thomas Taylor on 0113 204 0407 – ku.1701752411oc.fc1701752411l@rol1701752411yatt1701752411

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