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Matt Kelland


Engineering in the New Industrial Revolution, Part 1

‘Rules-based human activity is going away’

Published: Tuesday, September 8, 2015 - 11:49

In the world’s largest ketchup processing plant, a robot fires a continuous stream of freshly picked tomatoes across the factory floor using compressed air. A plethora of cameras make minute observations of every tomato as it flies by, checking for ripeness and damage. As soon as a defective tomato is identified, another robot fires a precision blast of air at it, unerringly knocking it out of the stream and into a separate hopper. At the other end of the factory, the finished bottles of ketchup are packaged up and placed on pallets by autonomous forklift trucks, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

No humans are involved.

Every industry is affected by automation. It’s not just cars that are being made by robots now. Our power plants are becoming increasingly automated. Our food is grown and processed in automated farms, storage units, and factories. Buildings are prefabricated by machines. In the modern factory, smart machines talk to each other and notify their human masters when they need attention.

In this industrial revolution, most of the human workforce is simply no longer necessary, replaced by increasingly sophisticated robots, more advanced sensors, and a more robust Internet.

“What’s happening is that rules-based human activity is going away,” says Kevin Paveglio, who runs the mechatronics degree program at ECPI College of Technology in Virginia. “Low-skilled jobs are disappearing. We don’t need people putting things in boxes any more. We’re taking out human elements because of safety and quality concerns. Cars now last longer because they’re put together better. Twenty years ago, 70,000 miles on a car was a lot, but now they’re just broken in at that age. The companies that automate are doing much better in the economy. Simply put, for manufacturing companies, it’s do or die.”

Faster, better, cheaper... automation offers all three. Machines are poised to take a huge proportion of the burden of manual labor from us. Whether that heralds a utopia or dystopia remains to be seen: Are we ushering in an era of mass unemployment or increased leisure? But as the Luddites showed 200 years ago when they failed to destroy the machines that changed the textile industry, the technology itself is unstoppable. Society will have to adapt, not just in America, but worldwide.

The Day of the Machines is here.

Machines are just plain better

It says a lot about our powers of ingenuity that we invent machines that can outperform us in almost every way, from tomato screening to diagnosing cancer. The advantages to adopting automation are undeniable.

Prescient is a manufacturing and technology company that creates steel frame structures for hotels, dormitories, and multifamily housing. The company utilizes robotics extensively to make the process more efficient, faster, and cheaper. “In the process of the design we incorporate standardization which allows us to design through proprietary components, like Lego sets,” explains Michael Lastowski, Prescient’s founder and CTO. “That leads us to a lot of opportunities to streamline the manufacturing because it’s all about repetition. We can easily incorporate elements like robotic welding.”

Rick Barrett, the company’s director of technology, explains the process. “With this simplified product design, we have panels, posts, and trusses. Holes are drilled automatically, not by hand, then the panels are welded in a fully robotic system in a controlled environment. This gives us far more accuracy on the construction of the components, typically tolerance of less than a 16th inch on something like a hallway. We also get a far higher consistency of weld. The finished products still require visual inspection, and some manual welding to correct errors, but at least 75 percent of the work is done by the machines.”

(photo credit Creative Commons, U.S. Army RDECOM BY)

“Our fabrication plants are working 24 hours a day,” says Lastowski. “And we just need equipment operators, not a full staff. The commercial advantages are huge. Normally, it would take a month to construct the components for a 100,000 square foot, five-story hotel. We can do it in a week, for less money. And the faster that hotel is up, the sooner the owner is making revenue. Everybody wins.”

Paveglio echoes the improved quality that automation brings. “The Boeing 727 used to have around 2,000 pounds of shims to keep it together when it was hand built. Now it has just 200 pounds of shims because there’s more precision.”

Although fully robotic plants get all the attention, one underrated aspect of automation is people and machines working together. Thomas Kurfess, a professor at Georgia Tech, an ASME fellow, and former advisor to President Obama on manufacturing technologies, calls these systems “co-bots.” Robots are great for moving big things around, but they have their limitations. Often, they’re most effective as part of a human-machine team.

I know what you’re thinking now: Will we ever see Alien-style exoskeletons? “Oh yes, full exoskeletons are happening,” Kurfess says. “There’s lots of work going on, but realistically, we’re not likely to see them in the near future. First we’ll get robotic arms or similar devices, which make use of human perception, motor skills, and decision making, combined with robot strength. If you’re putting an engine into a car, the human can align it while the robot carries the weight. In surgery, it works the other way round: Normal-size movements translate to micro-movements.”

Cheaper, safer, more productive

However, working with robots has its own set of problems. Kurfess emphasizes the need to think about the manufacturing environment. “Most automated production facilities are mostly robotic welding and assembling,” he says. “That’s not a healthy environment for humans, so robots and humans have to be physically separated: If a human gets in the robot area, everything shuts down. Allowing humans to work in proximity to robots can change the way we interact. Vision and other sensory systems track the human and put a virtual box around them to prevent robots getting in. Robot controllers are fast enough to sense if the robot is coming in contact with something, and react to that contact in real time, so the robot can safely be around humans.”

(photo credit Creative Commons, Steve Jurvetson BY)

But speed, cost, and quality aren’t the only benefits that automation brings. Machines are making workplaces safer, operating in environments that are hazardous to humans, or detecting potential problems long before they become dangerous.

Mark Spindler, CTO at Lakeland Grain, develops and installs fully automated grain terminals. “As we move the grain, it’s dumped out of a truck into a pit, up a bucket elevator, onto a conveyor, and into the bin. This generates lots of grain dust, which is very explosive. When a belt gets out of alignment, it can heat up and cause an explosion. It’s a major problem for the industry. We still get 10 to 12 explosions a year across the U.S., some of which are fatal. Existing systems monitor the temperature every few minutes, and will sound an alarm to warn the human operator that there’s an issue. The problem is that a drifting belt can make it ‘game over’ in mere seconds. Our technology detects when something is wrong and automatically shuts down the equipment instantly.”

This level of predictive maintenance saves lives and money. Operating on a “best practice” routine inevitably means unnecessary downtime while equipment is inspected for wear or damage, and expensive parts are often replaced before it’s strictly necessary. Factories need to keep stocks of components on hand, so that they’re always available, which locks up operating capital and storage space. And when a vital piece of equipment fails unexpectedly, it can delay production throughout the entire plant.

“It’s all about data collection,” says Kurfess. “Imagine a smart copy machine. When toner gets low, it sends a message to the company, and they send new toner so I never run out; it just shows up when I need it. Now apply that logic to machine tools. What if my tools can tell me which inserts are wearing out, so they can get replaced just in time, so we’re not spending money on inventory sitting on shelves? That improves our supply chains as well as productivity.”

Improved data collection also gives manufacturers much more flexibility in the way they operate. Once you know exactly what is going on within an individual machine or assembly plant, you can configure it in different ways. “You can choose to run your machines at high deterioration to maximize output, or you can opt to reduce wear to save costs,” explains Todd Walter, chief marketing manager of embedded systems at National Instruments. “You can calculate exactly how much that will cost in terms of additional maintenance and make a business decision about whether the additional revenue is worth it.”

The industrial Internet of Things

The Internet of Things (IoT) may have been slow to catch on in the consumer world—not many of us have really seen the need for smart fridges or washing machines—but connectivity is changing everything in the industrial world. Traditional Internet may be adequate for homes and businesses, but for industry, the standards often need to be higher. “It’s taken a while for the Internet to really hit manufacturing, but for good reasons,” notes industry solutions architect Paul Didier of Cisco. “If you have to wait two minutes for your Amazon purchase, no problem; if you have to wait two minutes to shut down a power station, that can be catastrophic. It can’t move as fast as other businesses because of safety and regulations, but now technology is catching up with those needs.”

(photo credit Creative Commons, Christopher Michel BY)

Bandwidth, latency, security, and reliable connectivity can be major problems for many industries, whether they’re using ethernet or wireless. “We install systems in harsh environments such as oil and gas plants, transformer stations where there is a lot of metal and interference, or places where temperature or dust is an issue,” says Matt Nelson of AvaLAN Wireless, who pioneered the use of 900 mHz wireless in manufacturing. “When you’re putting in connections to and from transformer stations, unintentional emissions cause havoc. We have to keep channels narrow, power high, and connectivity on.”

However, once you solve those fundamental engineering problems, the transformation in industry is astonishing. “You can upgrade your connected equipment the same way you upgrade your cellphone,” explains Dan Sexton of GE. “You can simply send a firmware update directly from the manufacturer and change the way something works.”

For Prescient, connectivity offers even more flexibility. “We have plants around the world,” says Barrett. “If one of them is taken offline by a storm or something, we can simply reroute production to another plant with literally a press of a button.”

At Lakeland Grain, IoT is a vital part of improving grain storage. “The machines talk to each other, which cuts out human error,” explains Spindler. “You can’t accidentally put the wrong thing in the wrong bin, which is an expensive mistake. We also have wireless probes deep in the stored grain, looking for the hot spots that signify potential spoilage, and communicating with the fans that adjust temperature and humidity to minimize shrinkage if the corn dries out. They’re constantly reporting back to a control panel that operators can access from a browser on their phones, tablets, or whatever, and they’ll send out alarms via text or email if there’s an issue. Without this, you don’t know there’s a problem until it’s too late, and your grain has gone bad. This way, you can easily increase your revenues by $250,000 in a season with a $15,000 system.”

Part two of this article considers the ways engineers are developing production systems to take advantage of automation.

First published on EngineerJobs.com.


About The Author

Matt Kelland’s picture

Matt Kelland

Matt Kelland has more than 25 years experience in software engineering. He has worked in the United Kingdom and United States, as well as with numerous partners around the world. He is currently a lecturer teaching business skills to software developers in central Florida.