As Manufacturing Companies Increase Robot Use, More Employees Fear Hacking

Posted on 08/03/2024 by ZacAmos in Industrial

Modern robots are capable of things people never thought possible. Unfortunately, their advancement has come at a cost — they’ve grown substantially more vulnerable to cyber attacks, malware injections and malicious tampering. Are manufacturing workers in danger?

Robots May Pose a Bigger Threat Than First Thought

Reports of a robot attack in a Tesla factory have stirred uneasiness in the industry. A failed shutdown resulted in a manufacturing worker being pinned down and clawed by a robot’s manipulator — its arm-like accessory — until someone else hit the emergency stop button. 

Witnesses reportedly saw the individual’s arms and back bleeding, claiming there was a trail of blood left behind. While the event happened in 2021, it is gaining traction in light of similar situations. 

Although this situation didn’t occur because of hacking, it highlights the potential damage a robot could do in the wrong hands. If a single one can cause such gruesome injuries on accident, what harm could it do on purpose?

The Rise of Robotics in Manufacturing  

Robotics is a massive part of the manufacturing industry. Historically, repetitive work has made automation a wise choice. Now, technological advancements have expanded potential use cases. Robots can manage assembly lines, order picking and quality control by themselves. 

Over time, robotics manufacturers ironed out development flaws and streamlined processes. Production costs consequently plummeted, causing prices to drop over 50% from 1990 to 2019. Since modern robots are more affordable than ever, more facilities are adopting them. 

The decades-long interest in robotics has continuously increased its market value, driving demand. Globally, manufacturing companies will spend $24.4 billion integrating industrial robots by 2025 — beating out commercial, military and personal sectors as the most significant investment area.

Even without factoring in affordability and value, the rise of robotics in manufacturing would still be inevitable — widespread labor shortages have left managers with no other choice. Experts expect the industry to have 2.1 million job openings by 2030. Without enough applicants, many facilities have had to turn to automation. 

Robots can function around the clock without breaks, sleep or productivity loss. Also, they don’t require safety equipment or hazard pay to work in dangerous conditions. They don’t need to be paid at all — the only cost associated with them is maintenance. 

These factors are the biggest contributors to the rise of robotics in manufacturing. Industrial, mobile and collaborative robots (cobots) have become an integral part of the industry. Nowadays, finding a facility that doesn’t have at least one in operation would be challenging. 

The Cybersecurity Risks of Manufacturing Robots 

If a facility’s administrators forget an update or overlook a misconfiguration, they create a backdoor for hackers. Seemingly minor mistakes are enough to cause massive vulnerabilities — even a single error in a line of code can lead to a cyber attack. 

Every integration presents a unique security risk. For example, a robot’s built-in IoT sensors are vulnerable to ransomware, botnet and malware attacks because they are often unsecured despite being connected to the internet. AI is another example — hackers can tamper with an algorithm’s training data, causing it to behave unexpectedly. 

Robots can be hacked in numerous ways, depending on their age, integrations and connectedness. Securing a high volume of vulnerabilities is time-consuming, so hackers have plenty of time to secretly enter systems, launch cyber attacks or inject malware. 

Why Are Manufacturing Workers Afraid of Hackers?

Manufacturing robots used to be massive, immovable machines only a select few — usually repair workers — were allowed to go near. Thanks to artificial intelligence and cloud computing technologies, they can now move independently, follow pre-set paths or work side-by-side with humans.

While these technological advancements are undoubtedly impressive, they’ve opened the door for something sinister. The software and firmware most modern robots rely on are vulnerable to tampering, cyber attacks and malware injection. 

Manufacturing workers fear hacking because it could put their lives in danger. For example, if a hacker hijacked a cobot’s manipulator, they could swing it out of the safety zone, hitting anyone nearby with hundreds of pounds of metal. The same concept applies to mobile and autonomous robots.

Even if hackers only intend to damage products or be a nuisance, there’s no guarantee of safety. Unless they have access to proximity sensors and a live camera feed while hacking, there’s no way for them to know if anyone is close enough to get hurt. 

Manufacturing workers are unconfident in their employer’s cybersecurity posture, which worsens the situation. It isn’t surprising, given that four in 10 companies don’t have a standard method for evaluating and ranking cyber threats. How can they protect staff if they don’t know what to defend against?

The Implications of Hacking in Manufacturing

As the rise of robotics continues and cyber threats become more apparent, widespread feelings of uneasiness and stress will likely increase. Already, 85% of manufacturing workers believe robots are vulnerable to hacking. An additional 51% have witnessed or personally know of one being hacked. 

If hacking continues to be an issue for manufacturers, their employee retention, satisfaction and productivity rates will likely decline. Workers who fear for their safety may begin to seek work elsewhere or leave the industry entirely.

Even though there are more robots in the manufacturing industry than there are people, most facilities still rely on humans for decision-making, repair and skilled work. In other words, they won’t be able to maintain their current production rate if they lose workers’ trust. 

How Employees’ Fear Will Impact Robotics 

The adoption and utilization of robotics are staples in manufacturing, so it’s unlikely workers’ fears will cause a significant shift. According to some estimates, this industry has roughly 90% of all robots currently in operation. Even though people are growing more fearful, there’s a slim chance they could undo decades of adoption.

Although many people are increasingly afraid of hacking, they acknowledge the value robotics can add. In fact, 79% of manufacturing workers believe more industries should use robots. Most indicators suggest facilities will strengthen their cybersecurity posture over giving up automation. 

Tips to Reduce Industrial Robots’ Security Vulnerabilities

While modern robots are prone to various cyber threats, defending them is possible. 

1. Routine Risk Assessment 

Management should collaborate with the IT team to conduct routine risk assessments since cyber threat priority depends on the technology they use and the state of the threat landscape. The kind of cyber attack type that’s most dangerous can change from month to month.

2. Ongoing Vulnerability Assessment 

Even if robots are secure after installation, vulnerabilities can happen at any point due to missed updates, misconfigurations and poor integrations. The IT team should continuously search for and patch anything hackers could exploit. 

3. Timely Equipment Updates

Software and firmware must receive timely updates to prevent vulnerabilities from appearing. If automatic updates aren’t an option, scheduled ones are the next best thing. The IT team should check for any at least once every few months to ensure they stay up to date. 

4. Proper Hiring Strategies 

Many manufacturing workers are beginning to feel uneasy about working alongside robots because hacking can happen instantly — and a fix can take weeks. Proper hiring strategies can ease their concerns. A knowledgeable professional with expertise in industrial robotics and cybersecurity will know how to prepare staff and respond to emergencies with a level head. 

5. Incident Response Plan Development

No cybersecurity strategy has a 100% success rate. In other words, management must prepare for the day when one of their robots gets hacked. An incident response plan informs floor workers and the IT team about how to react safely and effectively. 

Can Manufacturing Workers Stay Safe from Hacking?

Although protecting workers from invisible cyber threats can be challenging, it is entirely possible as long as IT teams and management work together. If they establish proper protocols and follow the best practices, they can keep their staff and their products safe from harm

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