Balanced Engineering’s Rick Weires Weighs in on the Value of Functional Safety

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5/22/2024

Functional Safety

There’s no overstating the importance of keeping functional safety in mind when designing and launching innovative and cutting-edge products. With that in mind, AEM member company Balanced Engineering is committed to advancing the cause of functional safety in agriculture and other off-road equipment applications, especially as it relates to the development of automated off-road equipment offerings.

Rick Weires, co-founder of Balanced Engineering and presenter at the 2024 Product Safety & Stewardship Conference, recently caught up with AEM to discuss the importance of prioritizing functional safety today, how organizations can improve in this area, and what AEM’s role can play in advancing the cause of this key element of overall product safety.

AEM: Could you provide a few thoughts on the value of (and need for) functional safety training in the equipment manufacturing industry?

Weires: We’re seeing so many smaller companies and newer startups build equipment control systems today. However, many don’t possess the capability to execute functional safety within their own organizations. Some don’t have any safety resources within their company at all.

So, the question becomes, “Where do you start?” It’s a significant one, but it’s also one that tends to diminish as companies grow in size. That’s because larger organizations can justify setting up training internally and mostly by themselves.

However, as companies develop viable products – in the sense that they do something useful for a customer – the question they’re tasked with answering is, “When is it safe to put the product in the hands of customers?” It is important for the industry to have a consistent approach so companies developing and modifying control systems use best practices to avoid creating large problems for the industry and end up portraying it in a negative light.

So, there is tremendous value in elevating the capability in each company as it relates to functional safety and working to ensure it is addressed industry-wide. The other thing to keep in mind is nobody’s perfect, and everyone struggles with functional safety to some extent.

AEM: How can some of these smaller and newer companies begin to close their functional safety gaps?

Weires: One of the most effective ways is to work with consultants, who are adept at coming in and auditing an organization from a functional safety perspective. Success truly comes down to identifying the gaps and determining the next steps. Also, training key roles in the company ensures, consistent safety execution during multi-year product development cycles.

AEM: What stands to be gained from soliciting help from outside sources to address functional safety?

Weires: One major benefit is they reduce their liability. Functional safety reduces the risk of accidents which, in turn, lowers liability. Ultimately, the goal is to make products safer, which leads to a better organizational reputation.

One additional overlooked benefit is functional safety accelerates the confidence organizations have in their products. It almost goes without saying, but if a company is getting ready to sell a product, and they’re not quite sure if it’s safe, there’s naturally going to be some hesitation. But if the confidence is there, it just makes it easier to promote a product more effectively.

AEM: How has equipment manufacturing overall evolution as an industry impacted functional safety?

Weires: Consider the European Union. It’s the most regulated of all markets, typically, for construction and agriculture equipment. In addition, the EU Machinery Directive says organizations need to build in functional safety within their products.

However, enforcement occurs after the fact. So, if an organization is selling a product, and it’s not doing functional safety very well, the result can be getting sued or seeing a product removed the market altogether because it’s not deemed safe.

All of this is to say the regulatory environment of today encourages functional safety, and I think it’s one area where many companies, particularly in North America, aren’t paying enough attention.

There are so many places in the world where functional safety is becoming increasingly important. A company in California or Iowa, however, doesn’t really think about the European Union until customers say “Hey, we’re going to export this product to Europe now.” If the proper levels of functional safety aren’t in place, then it’s just not going to happen. They won’t be ready to sell there. They won’t know what the risks are for doing so. They won’t have a strong understanding of how to proceed. That’s a real issue.

AEM: What are some of the key questions organizations should be asking themselves and trying to answer with regards to functional safety (especially in line of the environment you just described?)

Weires: The biggest question involves knowing whether their control systems are safe. How many accidents are caused by control systems malfunctioning? Having that understanding is the starting point for a large company.

But for smaller companies, sometimes they struggle to see a trend emerge until it’s too late. The situation might be a bad control system is being sold and it isn’t noticed until a few thousand are in the market. Oftentimes, larger organizations have a handle on such issues. But with smaller ones, they don’t know what they don’t know until they know it in the most expensive way: facing a field recall.

Ultimately, it might take two or three years for a problem to emerge. By that time, so many machines are out in the market capable of malfunctioning or having problems. Even worse, sometimes they’re late and an accident occurs.

It’s so important for organizations to gain a strong sense of how confident they are in their product design and have strong levels of communication with their suppliers. Ultimately, that’s going to help companies get closer to achieving functional safety.

AEM: What is AEM’s role in supporting both its members and the industry as they try to achieve greater levels of functional safety?

Weires: What’s already being done with the AEM Product Safety & Stewardship Conference makes a huge difference. That’s the biggest role AEM can play, because it really helps inform companies as to what’s going on in the world of safety and compliance, as well as get a good grasp on what they should be doing moving forward.

An event like that also helps ensure the reputation of the industry remains strong. Because even if organizations aren’t great at functional safety yet, they can still be aware of the gap and start thinking critically about it. And, in the end, what we see is organizations putting safe, reliable products into the marketplace. That’s a win-win for everyone.

Save the Date: 2025 AEM Product Safety & Stewardship Conference

Set for April 28-May 1, 2025, in Nashville, Tennessee, AEM’s Product Safety & Stewardship Conference and Liability Seminar is the industry’s only annual conference dedicated to advancing heavy equipment manufacturing programs with custom-crafted education tracks, innovative approaches to product stewardship, and networking. For more information, visit the event’s official website.

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