Automation Engineer – Automation Engineer https://www.theautomationengineer.com A drives, motors and automation resource. Thu, 20 Feb 2020 11:03:47 +0000 en-GB hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.3.2 https://i0.wp.com/www.theautomationengineer.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/CT-favicon.png?fit=16%2C16&ssl=1 Automation Engineer – Automation Engineer https://www.theautomationengineer.com 32 32 101235857 Pre-engineered Drive Solutions https://www.theautomationengineer.com/insight/pre-engineered-drive-solutions/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=pre-engineered-drive-solutions https://www.theautomationengineer.com/insight/pre-engineered-drive-solutions/#respond Thu, 20 Feb 2020 11:03:46 +0000 https://www.theautomationengineer.com/?p=1965 It is becoming increasingly common for suppliers of automation equipment to offer clients the option of pre-engineered drive solutions. The idea is to make life easier: instead of having to install variable speed drives themselves, alongside all the necessary supporting hardware, customers are able to take delivery of a pre-built package in which drive, enclosure […]

The post Pre-engineered Drive Solutions appeared first on Automation Engineer.

]]>
It is becoming increasingly common for suppliers of automation equipment to offer clients the option of pre-engineered drive solutions. The idea is to make life easier: instead of having to install variable speed drives themselves, alongside all the necessary supporting hardware, customers are able to take delivery of a pre-built package in which drive, enclosure and peripherals arrive on site already put together and ready for use.

The convenience of such packages takes a significant amount of pressure off a company’s automation engineers. It is not just a question of saving time when a crucial aspect of operations goes down and needs rapid replacement; it is equally a matter of taking advantage of the supplier’s expertise in system design when commissioning a drive solution that is exactly right for any given remit.

Whether the growth in popularity of these packages says anything about available levels of engineering talent generally is open to debate. But it is not disputed that a significant number of in-house electrical engineering posts are going unfilled in the construction, transportation, manufacturing, telecommunications and power generation industries in the UK and a number of other EU countries.

pumping-station-dam

This being the case, it is not hard to see how automated solution specialists, anxious that uptake of their product should not suffer due to uncertainties over system integration, might wish to do all they can to smooth the way; and particularly, perhaps, to access smaller-scale customers who may see themselves as technically underqualified to do full justice to the investment.

By the same token, drive systems are constantly evolving and drive engineering is increasingly a field of expertise in its own right. Any company, however well supported by technicians working across the plant, is unlikely not to benefit, and even learn, from work done on the system-build by those with a particular interest in the drive’s performance.

What does a pre-engineered drive solution look like?

It comes in a cabinet, likely sourced from an industry specialist such as Rittal, and vented at roof-level or otherwise to allow for adequate internal air flow. The size of the enclosure varies according to the power of the installation – they are commonly as tall as 1.5m – though in terms of shape they are always plinth-like, with internal components arranged vertically. The design thinking is to combine ease of access for the engineer (through a locker-style front door) with space-saving compactness (important when the enclosure may be destined for an already crowded control room floor).

There exist different ways of connecting the cabinet up – such as whether the cabling enters at the top or the bottom – but routing will always be both readily comprehensible and simple to reach (through removable side panels, base trays, etc.). In fact, the positioning and mounting of all the cabinet’s key components – drive modules themselves on a rail system, for example – are designed with serviceability strongly in mind.

Drive enclosures, it goes without saying, represent high and potentially volatile concentrations of energy. Packaged drive systems relieve installation engineers of the need to select, source and individually configure all the hardware peripherals that keep the unit’s electrical behaviour stable and safe; and throughout the construction of the package an adherence to international safety standards – such as those laid out by UL – may be taken as read.

Line reactors (or chokes) figure in the set-up as standard, combating any surges of harmonic disturbance produced by the drive’s behaviour. Moulded case circuit breakers, similarly, are always present to shield power levels against overload or short circuit.

One of the greatest risks posed to control room personnel by systems that do not meet adequate safety standards is the notorious arc flash – that explosion of light and heat that accompanies a sudden discharge of electricity through air following a fault. The accident can be catastrophic within a cabinet enclosure since the force of the flash is likely to be contained on all sides apart from the open front door and thus probable position of the engineer. Consequently, arc flash mitigation measures are an integral feature of ready-to-run drive solutions.

pre-engineered-drive-cabinet

Customisation

Besides the system basics that underpin the package’s safety and quality of performance, some suppliers may offer optional extras – ways in which clients can customise their order according to preference and budget. Cabinet hardware can be supplemented by anti-condensation heaters, for example, or by interior lighting. Style of operator control may reflect a choice between door-mounted keypad and display or a Windows-based PC tool.

For some suppliers there is in fact no aspect of the product that is not open to customisation. Braking options, different levels of harmonic filtering, performance and trend monitoring facilities can all be integrated into an individually commissioned system well in advance of the customer taking possession.

Then again, of course, a small, simple-to-configure, plug and play drive package in the order of 1-200 HP may be shipped off the shelf and 24 hours later be filling an emergency gap in an air-conditioning system.

All markets diversify over time. Ultimately, though, the significance of pre-engineered drive solutions lies in the degree to which they reflect a widening of the technology’s reach. For the largest companies, long-versed in the culture and apparatus of automation, pre-packaged drives represent a considerable convenience. But for many inexperienced start-ups, or for small family firms struggling with unproductive practice, they offer the most straightforward introduction to the technology itself.

The post Pre-engineered Drive Solutions appeared first on Automation Engineer.

]]>
https://www.theautomationengineer.com/insight/pre-engineered-drive-solutions/feed/ 0 1965
Automation and the Future of the Workplace https://www.theautomationengineer.com/insight/automation-and-the-future-of-the-workplace/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=automation-and-the-future-of-the-workplace https://www.theautomationengineer.com/insight/automation-and-the-future-of-the-workplace/#respond Thu, 09 Jan 2020 12:05:41 +0000 https://www.theautomationengineer.com/?p=1917 The automation revolution is raising increasingly interesting questions about the nature of the workplace – and about what it might look like in the future. The direct challenge posed by robots to certain kinds of low-skilled job is the subject of long-standing scrutiny, but today it represents only part of the story. As innovations in […]

The post Automation and the Future of the Workplace appeared first on Automation Engineer.

]]>
The automation revolution is raising increasingly interesting questions about the nature of the workplace – and about what it might look like in the future.

The direct challenge posed by robots to certain kinds of low-skilled job is the subject of long-standing scrutiny, but today it represents only part of the story. As innovations in robotic engineering, artificial intelligence and machine learning multiply, a far greater diversity of occupations than ever before is set to be directly affected by one form of automation or another.

What impact will technology have on jobs generally?

To the issue of how many traditional jobs will eventually be automated should these days be added the possibly more fundamental and far-ranging question: in what ways will automation change work across the board? What impact will technology have on jobs generally? And if, because of automation, there are certain things that we as workers will do less, what – if anything – will we do more?

The workplace of the future will require, most obviously, a generalised technological upskilling. More robots, more devices, more AI will all require competent operation and maintenance if investment in them is not to backfire. The problems presented by a workforce undertrained in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics have for some time been foreseen by governments and businesses anxious to remedy the so-called STEM talent shortfall.

But it is not just a question of extra roboticists and system engineers. All future lines of work will call for increased IT proficiency as software applications become ever more pervasive. Cloud computing, in particular, is establishing itself as a vital feature of automated organisations, enabling businesses naturally to sync operations both internally and across partnerships. Within such companies, it is bound to become standard practice for employees to coordinate and share their work digitally.

On the one hand, then, more tech-savvy. But at the same time, most commentators anticipate for the human workforce a growing specialism in the soft skills of creativity and interpersonal contact. It has indeed been argued that such skills have a vital role to play within organisations that are strongly automated.

Automation in finance

Changes in the high street bank are often cited to illustrate the point. With the advent of ATMs and online banking, many employees have moved from routine money-handling activities to tasks designed to humanise an otherwise potentially impersonal bank-customer interface. This work ranges from putting walk-in clients at their ease, to assessing their individual requirements with sympathy and intuition, even to thinking creatively about what financial products might suit them.

This kind of work requires no less training than upskilling in technology; and businesses are finding, to their profit, that it pays to value skill-sets not historically thought of as in themselves marketable. It is part of a discovery process currently underway that two distinct classes of work – the automated and the human – carry the potential not only to complement each other, but to outperform together the capabilities of either on its own.

Success of cobots

The success of cobots is a case in point. Where the field of industrial robotics once conjured up images of huge welding and drilling machines caged off from the rest of the factory, it is now as likely to signify tabletop arms passing machine components to human co-workers further down a workbench, or the thousand-strong fleets of merchandise pickers and transporters that share the floor with people in any Amazon warehouse.

It is not just their accessibility which lies behind cobots’ success; it is their versatility. Unlike older purpose-built robots, these machines can be taught new tasks on the job, and on the spot, by their human co-workers, in rapid response to changing demands. In this respect the human-robot partnership represents, amongst other things, the manufacturer’s or supplier’s most effective response to a less static marketplace.

cobots in packaging industry

Artificial intelligence

As with hardware, so with the digital: opportunities for artificial intelligence are increasingly dovetailing with opportunities for human intelligence in order to establish, in concert, a new total efficiency of effort.

Working with information, for example, often begins with compiling quantities of raw data: from spotting potential bugs and security gaps in web apps and servers to identifying documents pertinent to a legal case during the discovery phase. The technology is now comfortably in place to have this data-trawling done automatically – and consequently more extensively and more accurately than before.

Even as it replaces such old-style human labour, however, automation creates new demand for further, more challenging work in its place: that of handling the data, of interpreting it and applying it creatively and practically to the day’s agenda in ways not catered for by programmed algorithms.

It will in particular involve human beings taking on the challenge of material that automation cannot handle: the exceptional, the anomalous and the problematic. This might mean something as simple as a company book keeper being freed from the onus of collating a week’s worth of expenses claims so that they can investigate properly the one that was made without a receipt.

Automated systems and humans

As the working relationship between automated systems and human employees grows both more prevalent and more complex, concerns have been raised that technological advances are not pursued at a pace or in a manner that puts employees at a disadvantage. In the UK, for example, the Institute for the Future of Work advises the architects of the Fourth Industrial Revolution on strategies of innovation that are both productive and palatable.

Where businesses do invest in worker-friendly automation, however, not only will their employees’ occupational experiences be more stimulating and varied, but automation’s own potential might be better tapped. An Accenture study last year found that properly understanding and embracing the human-machine paradigm could boost businesses’ revenue by up to 38%.

The advantages that automation promises to bring to the workplace may in this way be more human-friendly than many had at one time anticipated.

The post Automation and the Future of the Workplace appeared first on Automation Engineer.

]]>
https://www.theautomationengineer.com/insight/automation-and-the-future-of-the-workplace/feed/ 0 1917
Five Technology Trends for 2020 https://www.theautomationengineer.com/insight/five-technology-trends-for-2020/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=five-technology-trends-for-2020 https://www.theautomationengineer.com/insight/five-technology-trends-for-2020/#respond Tue, 17 Dec 2019 16:11:10 +0000 https://www.theautomationengineer.com/?p=1908 From chatbots to cobots, from 3D printing to 5G networks, the number of new technologies touting big business promise has in 2019 seemed more dizzying than ever. Behind the hype, though, where are the real developments? Where can we expect to see things happening over the next twelve months? Here is our pick of five […]

The post Five Technology Trends for 2020 appeared first on Automation Engineer.

]]>
From chatbots to cobots, from 3D printing to 5G networks, the number of new technologies touting big business promise has in 2019 seemed more dizzying than ever. Behind the hype, though, where are the real developments? Where can we expect to see things happening over the next twelve months? Here is our pick of five technology trends for business and industry in 2020.

B2B E-COMMERCE

Last year saw the global growth of the B2B e-commerce market continue apace. This ongoing cultural shift – away from a world of sales reps and telephone calls to one of self-service online platforms – directly reflects the strengthening role in commercial purchasing of the millennial generation: those digital natives who instinctively research and buy products online. The rising prominence of Amazon Business (set to become even more visible next year) is part of this picture.

What makes B2B e-commerce a trend to watch in 2020 is the pressing question of how well product providers will respond to urgently rising demand. The challenge will first and foremost involve improving a customer experience that for many still falls short of expectations (particularly when it comes to the provision of adequate product information). Alongside this, there is equal pressure on online sellers to improve their understanding of ongoing customer engagement – personalising the buying experience through responsiveness to feedback, for example, or through the development of loyalty programmes.

BLOCKCHAIN

Blockchain has attracted at least its fair share of hype in recent times; and the number of companies who have invested in it on a proof-of-concept level testifies to its revolutionary promise: to be an unprecedentedly safe and stable platform for financial relationships, supply chain systems and other data-based transaction processes.

If, as it does for many, blockchain gives the impression of still idling at the conceptual stage, this is in no way due to lack of interest, but rather because certain technical challenges, still not fully solved, are inhibiting the great leap forward.

blockchain in industry

Chief among these is the issue of interoperability: only very recently have network systems begun emerging whereby blockchain ventures can interact both with each other and with older file-sharing arenas. Just as high on the agenda are the themes of standardisation and regulation: many potential users are merely waiting on blockchain projects to give them the reassurance of recognisable consent mechanisms or legal protections that are only now being formulated.

It is anticipated that 2020 will deliver measurable advances in these areas.

DRIVERLESS INDUSTRIAL VEHICLES

For the last few years, fully autonomous road vehicles have been predicted for the immediate future; and Elon Musk’s timeline for driverless cars remains as aggressive as ever (Tesla robotaxis, he says, will be picking up passengers as early as next year). Most other developers of the technology have now struck a more cautious tone about the future, on account of how difficult it is proving in practice to solve problems such as getting vehicles to anticipate unexpected nearby movements.

The picture is altogether more promising in the world of driverless industrial vehicles: here vigorous progress is expected to continue in 2020. The number of autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs) – from the monster mining machines of Rio Tinto to the robotic pallets that weave their way around every Amazon warehouse – is rising markedly and in line with other aspects of the automation of industry. In this case, it seems, technology has made the necessary leap forward: from machines that used to run along pre-set routes laid down in magnetic tape or wires, to the incomparably flexible manoeuvrability of navigation through cameras and radar (or lidar).

AI AS A SERVICE

As devices such as AGVs multiply in type and number, the implications for AI proliferate correspondingly. Factories, warehouses and other industrial spaces are becoming smarter with every year that goes by; and this progress is bringing with it a developing burden on operational processing power.

With connected machinery continuously generating performance data, and with those and other types of data now able to be stored and accessed through cloud-computing, the pressure is on to get the best out of all this information using AI-generated insights.

The required hardware and software – let alone the programmers themselves – are a steep investment for all but the biggest of companies. Hence the escalating importance of AI as a service: essentially access to high-grade, off-the-shelf computing on a per-use basis. AIaaS is in 2020 expected to help a significant number of small and medium-sized businesses get fully on board the IoT revolution.

Over the next twelve months watch new players join leading providers Microsoft, Google, Amazon and IBM in the push towards enhanced product accessibility.

5G

From autonomous vehicles to artificial intelligence, the precise shape of many technological trends for business will depend, say some, on what happens next with 5G – the fifth generation of wireless mobile networks. The global roll-out has only just begun, and 2020 is most businesses’ first chance to get properly involved.

Potentially 100 times faster than 4G and with latency (download delays) proportionally slashed, 5G may well revolutionise industrial practice. Using just their mobile devices, team members will be able to work seamlessly together, exchanging significant quantities of data, wherever they are. Systems using robots and other networked machines will become fully fluent, with lags, snags and misalignments things of the past.

5g technology trend 2020

Few would-be subscribers to the technology, though, are ready to go. 2020 needs to see a great deal in the way of foundational investment: in both the network-compatible hardware that must be acquired or adapted and in a practical understanding of how enabled systems can help reformulate business strategy.

There is, then, across almost all technological trends, a strong sense of much groundwork still being laid. At the same time, confidence in the future, supported by a strongly agreed-upon direction of travel, remains high.

The post Five Technology Trends for 2020 appeared first on Automation Engineer.

]]>
https://www.theautomationengineer.com/insight/five-technology-trends-for-2020/feed/ 0 1908
Drives and Original Equipment Manufacturing (OEM) https://www.theautomationengineer.com/insight/drives-original-equipment-manufacturing-oem/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=drives-original-equipment-manufacturing-oem https://www.theautomationengineer.com/insight/drives-original-equipment-manufacturing-oem/#respond Wed, 04 Dec 2019 16:07:02 +0000 https://www.theautomationengineer.com/?p=1877 The advantages that industrial drive technology brings to machine motor control are felt throughout the organisational structures and supply chains of a number of major industries, and the Original Equipment Manufacturing (OEM) sector is no exception. It may be worth taking a moment at the outset, however, to clarify exactly what is meant by the […]

The post Drives and Original Equipment Manufacturing (OEM) appeared first on Automation Engineer.

]]>
The advantages that industrial drive technology brings to machine motor control are felt throughout the organisational structures and supply chains of a number of major industries, and the Original Equipment Manufacturing (OEM) sector is no exception.

It may be worth taking a moment at the outset, however, to clarify exactly what is meant by the words Original Equipment Manufacturing. It is a term that can mean different things to different people – especially when those people come from different industries.

What is an OEM – Original Equipment Manufacturer?

In the computing world, for example, an Original Equipment Manufacturer is sometimes understood to be a company that assembles products (or systems) out of component parts (or subsystems) manufactured by others. Where this practice consists mainly of bundling and branding, it is in other contexts more helpfully known as Value-Added Reselling; and the OEM more normally identified as the manufacturer of the component parts.

Where, though, one company is supplied with component parts by another but still manufactures its own generic, unbranded product – typically to be sold on down the supply chain to a further company more associated with end products – then it more closely approximates to an OEM as most understand it.

An Original Equipment Manufacturer is, in short, most commonly defined as any company that manufactures machinery to sell to other companies – either as component parts or for them actually to use within their own manufacturing processes.

Drives and drive systems are of fundamental importance to OEMs in a number of fields – in all fields, in fact, where machine operation demands safe and close controllability, dynamic responsiveness and smart energy consumption.

OEM and applications for variable frequency drives

Any OEM that specialises in supplying heat transfer equipment, for example, relies on drive technology in an array of products – whether it be the fan and pump motors of an HVAC system or the compressors and other mechanisms used to regulate the temperature in commercial refrigeration solutions.

Original-Equipment-Manufacturing

Elevators, cranes, indeed all types of conveyor machinery, are another class of industrial equipment that makes significant use of drive control. And an OEM’s clients in this field – construction sites, mining operations, ports and factories, as well as end product retailers – these days typically appreciate smooth and precise motion control as an industry norm.

Original Equipment Manufacture is, in fact, a thoroughly diverse sector – and the range of relevant drive applications therefore hardly less so. The technology may be found in anything from the slicing apparatus used to deliver identically-sized portions of beet in sugar factories; to the kind of welder that needs to vary speed according to the section of machine it is putting together; to the lapping and polishing machine accurate enough to work with parts of a timepiece almost too small to see with the human eye.

And, of course, if intelligent drives have revolutionised performance standards in traditional industries such as these, they are equally crucial players in more experimental territory – and for a new generation of OEMs. The world of commercial robotics, for example, uses electric drives and motors as staple components of its computer-controlled machines. And the growth rate of few industries is expected to match that of electric cars.

Successful Original Equipment Manufacturers typically have strong collaborative relationships with other manufacturers and suppliers. Motion control technology companies value OEMs as a significant client base of their own and typically work side by side with them on bespoke design projects, as well as providing them with long-term technical support. Where the associations are particularly close or committed they can graduate into full-blown business partnerships.

The advantages of easy to use industrial drives in manufacturing

The closeness of these relationships exists despite the fact that in a number of ways the drives supplied to OEMs have – in line with other aspects of automation – become increasingly easy to install and operate without in-depth specialist training. Uncomplicated motor pairing and intuitive interfaces with simple menu layouts are signs of how accessible drive solutions have become.

original equipment manufacturers

The ease with which much industrial equipment can now be sourced, particularly thanks to the development of online supply channels, has to some extent destabilised conventional supply-and-demand structures; it has certainly made those structures less hierarchical. And it is possible that in the long run this loosening may significantly alter the ways in which OEMs operate; already, for example, some are beginning to compete with aftermarket specialists for direct supply relationships with end-users.

Other factors, however, are seeing Original Equipment Manufacturers redouble their commitments to established alliances. Market currents have sped up considerably under pressure of consumer demand. And the accelerating pace of technological change means that purely in-house expertise will increasingly feel its limitations. For these reasons alone it is currently in the interest of all players in the supply chain to coordinate their operations as closely as possible.

The ongoing role industrial drives have to play in the making of OEM products is therefore likely to bring with it a good deal of forward-thinking conversation: whereby drive engineers can learn about the kind of equipment requirements that originate within the consumer end of the market, and manufacturers gain insight into opportunities presented by the latest technology.

Original Equipment Manufacturers are in this scenario well-placed to capture and disseminate technological advancements to areas of industry – such as agriculture or construction – where modernisation may be much desired but is, for various reasons, slow in coming. This is particularly true when it comes to issues of electrification and making systems autonomous.

And given that electrification and automation are trending across the industry more strongly than ever before, it seems inevitable that the importance of drive systems to Original Equipment Manufacturers will continue to grow.

The post Drives and Original Equipment Manufacturing (OEM) appeared first on Automation Engineer.

]]>
https://www.theautomationengineer.com/insight/drives-original-equipment-manufacturing-oem/feed/ 0 1877
Smart Production Solutions – SPS https://www.theautomationengineer.com/insight/sps-smart-production-solutions/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=sps-smart-production-solutions https://www.theautomationengineer.com/insight/sps-smart-production-solutions/#respond Fri, 08 Nov 2019 13:30:13 +0000 https://www.theautomationengineer.com/?p=1888 NUREMBERG 2019 For three days at the end of November thousands of visitors from all over the world will descend on the medieval German city of Nuremberg to witness an exceptional display of the latest in drives and automation technology. The event is the renowned Smart Production Solutions (SPS) trade show, now in its thirtieth […]

The post Smart Production Solutions – SPS appeared first on Automation Engineer.

]]>
NUREMBERG 2019

For three days at the end of November thousands of visitors from all over the world will descend on the medieval German city of Nuremberg to witness an exceptional display of the latest in drives and automation technology. The event is the renowned Smart Production Solutions (SPS) trade show, now in its thirtieth anniversary year.

Some 1,650 exhibitors are expected to attend. Ranged through the fifteen or so exhibition halls of the Nürnberg Convention Centre, their stalls will offer a comprehensive overview of the state of play in the field of industrial automation and every possible related sector: drive systems and their components; sensor technology; interface technology and power supplies; industrial communication systems; and – this year more than ever before – software and IT applications.

Last year’s show attracted more than 65,000 visitors from a variety of technical backgrounds (though the fields of control technologies and electric drives were especially well-represented). Reasons for attendance were many. Most attendees were potential buyers, with some on the lookout for specific products or solutions. A good number were there to pursue or renew relationships within the industry.

But what brought everyone together – and what the SPS is particularly known for – was an in-depth exchange of experiences and information, above all with regard to product innovations and trends.

The buzz of SPS – Smart Production Solutions

The buzz last year – every SPS tends to throw up a theme that captures the assembled imagination – was around Time Sensitive Networking. US signal transmissions specialist Belden was there to unveil a never-before-seen complete TSN system for Ethernet networks; before long, talk of the technology’s potential to support real-time communications for industrial control applications was all around the halls.

Product demonstrations are standard theatre at Nuremberg and often create real excitement – as when, last year, German automation giants Beckhoff and Bosch Rexroth both displayed working models of floating ‘movers’ – small, magnetically levitated platforms operational through six axes of freedom that promise to open up new possibilities in the fields of robotics and machine building.

Even without such futuristic wizardry, most demonstrations guarantee the attention of engineers curious about developments in their specialised areas of work. Thousands of motors, drive systems, safety controls, gears and adaptors are all on prominent display alongside thousands more digital screens.

What to expect from SPS?

What to expect this year? A clue lies in the show’s change of name. SPS used to go under the altogether less snappy designation SPS IPC Drives, the first three letters being, in fact, the abbreviation for a programmable logic controller in German. That signification has been remodelled – it now stands for Smart Production Solutions – with the secondary components left implicit.

The rebrand is meant to reflect a shift of interest within the automation industry at large – a new focus on the next generation of software and on opportunities raised by the digital revolution. Not that there will be any shortage of the usual hardware on display in Nuremberg. But this year those exhibitors will share the venue with relatively new faces from the worlds of cloud and big-data computing, artificial intelligence, machine learning and other IT technologies.

The new themes are evident in the list of product presentations, lectures and panel discussions scheduled to run over the course of the event’s three days (admission to which is free for exhibitors and visitors). Topics to be covered include everything from future directions for 5G in mechanical engineering, to the principle of interoperability in the age of Industry 4.0, to the likely impact of digitisation on process measuring technology.

On top of this, a dedicated joint stand – ‘Automation meets IT’ – will give special visibility to exhibitors specialising in areas such as cloud-based services, data-centric services and unified machine architecture.

Finally, a series of guided tours will focus on the themes of AI and predictive maintenance, industrial security in manufacturing and cloud ecosystems. Shorter, self-guided tours will also be available.

SPS, Europe’s biggest automation tradeshow

Within the strongly international feel of every SPS event, European exhibitors and visitors naturally predominate (making up 60% and 80% of last year’s attendance respectively) – with big names from Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic and Italy, especially in evidence. The strongest presence from further afield is always that of China, which last year accounted for almost a fifth of the exhibiting firms.

sps-smart-production-solutions-Control-Techniques-drives

The number of those who have booked stands for this November includes over forty companies from the UK and USA. Their presence alone – expect to find up and coming web and software developers alongside well-established names in the field of precision motion control engineering, in turn rubbing shoulders with smaller outfits dedicated to manufacturing locks, brakes and other safety equipment – should capture much of the diversity of the SPS remit.

SPS Nuremberg is not the only show coming up. Satellite events will take place throughout 2020 in other emerging automation heartlands: Guangzhou in February, Parma in Italy in May, and Dubai in September.

But Nuremberg is undoubtedly the event of the year. 94% of last year’s showing told a survey that they were planning to return in 2019, with individual visitors describing it as ‘the best trade show around’ and ‘the highlight of the exhibition year’.

Full details of the event can be found at the SPS website.

The post Smart Production Solutions – SPS appeared first on Automation Engineer.

]]>
https://www.theautomationengineer.com/insight/sps-smart-production-solutions/feed/ 0 1888
The Automation of Financial Investments https://www.theautomationengineer.com/education/automation-financial-investments/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=automation-financial-investments https://www.theautomationengineer.com/education/automation-financial-investments/#respond Wed, 06 Nov 2019 15:01:04 +0000 https://www.theautomationengineer.com/?p=1875 the one who challenged the old school technique with the automated process of financial investment… In 2008 legendary investor Warren Buffett threw out a challenge to his peers and rivals: he invited anyone of them to invest $500,000 in a portfolio of hand-picked hedge funds whose performance, over the course of ten years, and taking […]

The post The Automation of Financial Investments appeared first on Automation Engineer.

]]>
the one who challenged the old school technique with the automated process of financial investment…

In 2008 legendary investor Warren Buffett threw out a challenge to his peers and rivals: he invited anyone of them to invest $500,000 in a portfolio of hand-picked hedge funds whose performance, over the course of ten years, and taking expenses into account, would match or do better than the same sum that Buffett would put into in an unmanaged index fund.

Ted Seides of investment firm Protegé Partners took up the gauntlet. While Buffett’s half-million would simply track the aggregate fortunes of the five hundred large companies that make up the American stock exchange’s S&P 500, Seides selected five hedge funds that he, a Wall Street wizard of no mean ability himself, predicted would outperform them.

Nine years later Seides conceded an early defeat. Although he had done well, increasing the value of his pot by $220,000, Buffett’s gains weighed in at almost four times as much.

The point of the wager had been two-fold: that the high fees charged by hedge fund managers could potentially represent a complete loss of value for money; and that, in any event, returns on an investment spread widely within the fortunes of a healthy stock market would likely do no worse in the long run than one precision-engineered to succeed. The virtues of so-called passive investment had been spelt out.

automated passive investments

Since then, automated financial investment models have become big business. Alongside current AI applications, human attempts to play the money market, for all their bravura, are now widely perceived as both needlessly expensive and senselessly risky.

From automated passive investments …

Passive investment is the earliest and, by some lights, still the most efficient way of putting an investment fund on auto-pilot. The idea, invented in the 1970s by American financial strategist Jack Bogle, is simple but was, at the time, counter-intuitive: to invest money in funds that would simply track major stock market indexes rather than try to beat them. Low-maintenance, and therefore low-cost, the investments asked for little more human input than patience.

But there was always scope for automation to do more.

Since the 1980s those whose business is the active management of financial assets have sought out ways in which their stock-in-trade decision-making might be made more systematic, less discretionary and better informed by data-rich insight; in other words, more automated.

… quantitative funds

Investments given over to such control systems have come to be known as Quantitative funds. They use mathematical models and vast data fields instead of individually informed human judgement-calls to assess the relative attractiveness of potential assets and make predictions about the likely quality of returns.

Although the quantitative methodology has inherent limitations (to be offset, some suggest, by the less measurable insights that can be derived from complementary, qualitative research), there is no doubting the performance power of those hedge funds which – Bridgewater Associates and AQR Capital Management to name only today’s market leaders – espouse its approach.

The growing role AI has to play in the world’s money markets is clearly visible in the impact it is having on one sector in particular: the increasingly mainstream investment vehicles known as exchange-traded funds (ETFs). Traditionally a form of passive investment, these bundles of financial assets track the value of a market index, though they are also traded on stock exchanges through the day. Their popularity is a testament to, among other things, the well-established efficiency of the passive investment principle.

None of which means, of course, that one ETF performs as well as any other, nor that computer power and mathematical modelling don’t make a big difference. Leading ETFs are now starting to use proprietary algorithms to analyse such macroeconomic data as market volatility and interest rates with a view to predicting market changes and, on that basis, periodically rebalancing the composition of the fund.

automated financial investments

The fact that basically passive, strongly automated and therefore strikingly low-cost investment structures are now the marketplace norm is a break with tradition from which there may be no going back – especially if the shift is understood within a larger demographic context.

A digital revolution led by automation

The digital revolution has democratised, through an abundance of online services, the kind of investment opportunities that an earlier generation, typically older and of higher net worth, would have explored with the aid of expensive financial advisors. The online services – Betterment and Wealthfront are two of the key players – are popularly known as Robo-advisors.

These digital investment mechanisms deploy the same kind of algorithms that were pioneered in the early days of quantitative fund management and have been trickling down through the system ever since. Individual investors are allocated assets (typically via ETFs) automatically, with the assets subject to reinvestment and the allocation subject to rebalancing also automatically.

The intelligence of the platforms’ behaviour extends to practices such as tax-loss harvesting. The selling of assets at a loss in order to reduce short-term tax liability is, in fact, a good example of the kind of financial manipulation that is difficult to achieve manually but straightforward work for the right software.

Impressive as advances in automated investment techniques have been so far – advances which have benefited an unprecedented number of individuals as well, arguably, as the health of the stock market itself – their future is by no means certain. It is not known, ultimately, how good a fit artificial intelligence is for the unique dynamics of the marketplace. Can it do much more with the kind of data it currently has at its disposal? If it needs more, will there be enough – or could there be too much? Will the new AI insights be game-changers or dead-ends? And should their work be complemented by human economic theory, or will they somehow challenge and replace it?

Whatever the future, it will be a far cry from the days, not so very long ago, when technology meant ticker tape and slide rules, and when the best investments were made by people whose abilities seemed to defy analysis.

The post The Automation of Financial Investments appeared first on Automation Engineer.

]]>
https://www.theautomationengineer.com/education/automation-financial-investments/feed/ 0 1875
Drives in Nuclear Power Plants https://www.theautomationengineer.com/markets-sectors/drives-in-nuclear-power-plants/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=drives-in-nuclear-power-plants https://www.theautomationengineer.com/markets-sectors/drives-in-nuclear-power-plants/#comments Thu, 08 Aug 2019 08:43:15 +0000 https://www.theautomationengineer.com/?p=1824 The influence of drive technology in generating the world’s energy is enormous, and nowhere is this more so than in the nuclear sector. Nuclear power plants heat water to produce steam, which is used to spin turbines to generate electricity. The heat is produced by nuclear fission (the splitting of atoms into smaller atoms), and […]

The post Drives in Nuclear Power Plants appeared first on Automation Engineer.

]]>
The influence of drive technology in generating the world’s energy is enormous, and nowhere is this more so than in the nuclear sector.

Nuclear power plants heat water to produce steam, which is used to spin turbines to generate electricity. The heat is produced by nuclear fission (the splitting of atoms into smaller atoms), and the process occurs inside a reactor containing uranium fuel (in the form of ceramic pellets) at its core.  

Approximately 450 power reactors in 50 countries generate 11% of the world’s energy. In the UK the figure is just under 20%, slightly ahead of the US and Russia but massively behind France where nearly three-quarters of its supply is from atomic energy. Twenty years ago nuclear power provided around 25% of the UK’s electricity, but decommissioning caused by safety, performance and political factors has seen this decline.

Future of nuclear power in the UK

It is difficult to accurately predict where nuclear power will be over the next 20 years, not least because the energy market is a complex business of public and private money operating within commercial and political constrains. We know that carbon emission targets will drastically reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, but we do not yet know precisely how this will be replaced.

Many within the environmental lobby favour renewable energy over nuclear. Yet treasury departments – and the UK has been no exception – tend towards nuclear as better placed to attract investment because it is more reliable and potentially more cost-effective. Yet the current direction of travel may favour renewables.

While the UK has big investors on board for atomic power, the walking away of Japanese giants Toshiba and Hitachi from nuclear projects at Wylfa and Oldbury has prompted the government to reassess its position. It seems the UK government’s eagerness to grant licences for nuclear power expansion is not always matched by those needed to see it through.

However, we can be sure – if not about its exact pecking order relative to others – that nuclear energy will be a vital component of our future energy supply. The matter will be influenced by the extent to which decommissioning of existing plants can be stalled by the granting of life extensions. Apart from safety, decommissions are largely triggered by a lack of competitiveness – often the result of subsidises given to promote renewables.

Challenges of nuclear power

Central to the production of nuclear power is a reactor: this is surrounded by a multifarious network of vessels, chambers, lines, pumps, rods, and turbines. Temperatures can reach as much as 1000C, and water is the lifeblood of the system. The speed, volume, pressure and temperature at which the water is transported is key.

variable frequency drives - vfd - in nuclear power plants

Achieving energy savings is nearly always a high requirement for granting life extensions. The main functions of electrical systems in a nuclear plant are to distribute power to and protect, the components as well as the power supply itself. Traditional technology consists mostly of motors acting asynchronously (performing a standalone function within a sequence of events) to drive the pump to power the plant. Additional pumps and a network of process control values vary the speed at which liquid passes through the plant.

How variable frequency drives save energy in nuclear plants?

When the fast passage of liquid is required, such as when large amounts of cooling agent are needed to cool down the reactor core, it is not unusual to have four big 6kV recirculation pumps and over 100 control values in action – a process that accounts for over 25% of the energy costs to run a nuclear power plant. Variable Frequency Drives (VFDs) have shown to save energy, improve performance, simplify the system and cut downtime.

The replacement of old motor technology with VFDs (combined with AV motors) at a Tennessee Valley nuclear plant allowed efficiency to jump from 70% to 95%, figures typical of similar upgrades worldwide. It demonstrated that the actual energy savings to be gained from controlling the speed of pumps was enormous because a small reduction in speed can make a big reduction in energy consumption. For example, a pump or a fan running at half speed may consume as little as one-eighth of the energy compared to one running at full speed.

The application of VFDs in this way can reduce electricity bills by as much as 50 percent, with the knock-on benefit of reduced CO2 emissions. They can also eliminate the need for oil inclusion in the mechanical coupling between motor and generator, thus removing the need for routine inspection and protection measures against oil fires.

Drive technology in nuclear power plants

Drive technology has further assisted with protecting nuclear fuel and fuel rods – both of which are vulnerable to turbulence – by ensuring water circulating around them flows smoothly, without disruption. Regulations are strict in this respect and when electricity supply is increased, its ascension should be measured and gradual: the precise control of VFDs allows this within desired limits.

Similarly, VFD features can automatically bypass a failed power cell in the event of a control system failure; it will switch to a duplicate control system and adjust its speed appropriately to allow the plant to continue its work. It accomplishes this by calculating the magnitude of the phase shift and voltage adjustment.

nuclear-power-plants

The role of drives in nuclear fission is as much about politics as performance. Whether a Plant’s life is extended or decommissioned depends in no small part on the ability of automation engineers to come up with solutions that can stand the test of time.

That EDF Energy is planning a wide range of life extensions suggests the engineers are at the top of their game. These life extensions include an average eight years for its Reactors; seven-years for Hinkley Point and Hunterston; and five years for Hartlepool. It also spent £150 million to prepare Dungeness for a 10-year licence extension, to 2028.

There can be no doubt that the deft, innovative mechanics of VFDs has – literally – given new life to the nuclear power industry in the UK and beyond. Nuclear power will always have its detractors, and those who favour renewables over all else will not relent in warning of its potential dangers. But it would be fair to say that drive technology has significantly contributed to alleviating many of the fears: and as a result has helped secure nuclear energy as a major world force for generations to come.

The post Drives in Nuclear Power Plants appeared first on Automation Engineer.

]]>
https://www.theautomationengineer.com/markets-sectors/drives-in-nuclear-power-plants/feed/ 4 1824
Could Edge Computing Transform Manufacturing? https://www.theautomationengineer.com/insight/could-edge-computing-transform-manufacturing/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=could-edge-computing-transform-manufacturing https://www.theautomationengineer.com/insight/could-edge-computing-transform-manufacturing/#respond Fri, 02 Aug 2019 12:56:29 +0000 https://www.theautomationengineer.com/?p=1816 Edge Computing may seem like a new buzz-phrase, but how does it work and is it set to be the computing paradigm to move us beyond well-established cloud architectures? Could it even replace the cloud? Essentially, Edge Computing seeks to move computation away from an all-controlling data centre and distribute it to the edge of the network […]

The post Could Edge Computing Transform Manufacturing? appeared first on Automation Engineer.

]]>
Edge Computing may seem like a new buzz-phrase, but how does it work and is it set to be the computing paradigm to move us beyond well-established cloud architectures? Could it even replace the cloud?

Essentially, Edge Computing seeks to move computation away from an all-controlling data centre and distribute it to the edge of the network where it can access other computing systems – particularly data storage – and perform tasks on behalf of the cloud. This improves data transmission speeds and reduces bandwidth usage: a highly desirable for industrial manufacture which is set to become more autonomous and responsive as a result.

The growing number of Internet of Things (IoT) devices now in an industrial setting (Industrial Internet of Things [IIoT]), has enormously heightened pressure on data centres and network bandwidths. The consequence is slower transfer rates and response times – critical requirements to many industrial applications.

How can IoT Edge improve manufacturing?

To overcome the problem, it is necessary to relieve strain on the data centre. This can be done by allowing other information in from smart devices such as telephones and sensors: Edge Computing can store and manage the data (known as caching), and serve it for further use and at a faster speed when next required. As ever smaller devices are packed with more and more analytical capabilities, Edge Computing is in pole position to make the most of the opportunities it offers.

Cloud infrastructures are now integral to businesses across the world, and the offerings of the big three providers – Amazon, Microsoft and Google – dominate the market. The other major player is IBM, which provides the tools used to write cloud-computing applications, and as such is the middleman in the cloud wars.

All of this means that there is little room for performance growth in the cloud industry, with most of the new opportunities lying at the edge. And although cloud computing is often touted as being a huge cost-saving solution, it is often not the case. High-capacity cloud servers with high-volume data transfer capabilities come at considerable set-up, maintenance and subscription costs – and business is naturally cautious about such outlay.

Where cloud has already reached its limitations, Edge Computing plays an important role, as evidenced in autonomous vehicles. GE Digital (ge.com) estimates that for every eight hours of driving, autonomous cars generate around 40TB of data, and claim sending such a volume to the cloud would be ‘unsafe, unnecessary, and impractical.’ Edge Computing can untangle the information and use it selectively to allow the fastest possible vehicle functions while safeguarding passengers and pedestrians alike.

While Edge Computing is not new, its viability has been greatly enhanced by the ability of ever-smaller technical devices containing ever-larger computational capacity, making the data relatively inexpensively to access.

Use cases in which Edge Computing will become vital for industry may include fieldwork in remote locations with low and/or intermittent connectivity; situations where access and rapid analysis of material data is required for real-time analytics (e.g. technicians out on-site checking hardware performance); and being able to work with lower bandwidths by minimising network latency; i.e. the time it takes for information to travel to a data centre, be processed, and return to the endpoints.

Agile in manufacturing

This change in network architecture makes manufacturing more agile in core day-to-day functions. All the processing components essential for operating a smart manufacturing facility are available onsite, and can be distributed across the supply chain, making connectivity to a central data centre is less of a necessity.

Decentralising control in this way means that a malfunction need not stop the whole manufacturing process because it can be repaired in isolation to the whole operation. Hardware failure and cyber-attacks also become less of a threat due to the non-centralised nature of the network. Incorporation of the cloud has allowed the industry to gain a greater understanding of the data at its disposal, and they have used it to good affect – reducing energy costs and increasing output.

The cloud is still crucial to the IIoT, but it has limitations when processing huge volumes of data – and this is where Edge Computing comes into its own by helping ensure peak manufacturing performance is maintained. And when the IIoT detects faults in an automated system, Edge Computing can ensure a rapid response.

edge-computing-iiot

The principle of Edge technology represents a wider trend away from centralised control and is part of a broader discussion about centralised versus distributed systems. Here, as in other areas, engineers are discovering that structures can be more predictable and sturdy when not constructed around one critical location.

According to the Vodafone IoT Barometer 2018, the proportion of companies using Edge Computing has more than doubled, and nearly all using the technology report a return on investment (an average of 19%).

Looking at the whole gambit of business types in the private and public sector, the report provides sound evidence of the growing need for businesses to lessen reliance on the cloud and take advantage of the benefits available from the new Edge paradigm. As the use of IoT and IIoT becomes a new standard in manufacturing, Edge Computing can give a competitive edge – a consideration above all others that will secure its place in the factory floor.

The post Could Edge Computing Transform Manufacturing? appeared first on Automation Engineer.

]]>
https://www.theautomationengineer.com/insight/could-edge-computing-transform-manufacturing/feed/ 0 1816
The role of Electric Drives in Renewable Energy https://www.theautomationengineer.com/markets-sectors/role-of-electric-drives-in-renewable-energy/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=role-of-electric-drives-in-renewable-energy https://www.theautomationengineer.com/markets-sectors/role-of-electric-drives-in-renewable-energy/#respond Fri, 26 Jul 2019 14:02:08 +0000 https://www.theautomationengineer.com/?p=1786 Renewable energy is on the rise. Long regarded as an ‘alternative’ power source, the stuff of backyards and backwaters, it is at last headed for the mainstream. Grid parity – that point when the cost of renewable energy becomes equal to that of the conventional kind – is expected to arrive some time in the […]

The post The role of Electric Drives in Renewable Energy appeared first on Automation Engineer.

]]>
Renewable energy is on the rise. Long regarded as an ‘alternative’ power source, the stuff of backyards and backwaters, it is at last headed for the mainstream. Grid parity – that point when the cost of renewable energy becomes equal to that of the conventional kind – is expected to arrive some time in the 2020s. In the solar photovoltaic (PV) sphere, some countries, such as Germany, are already there.

New technologies, more than policies or pressure groups, are thought to be the main impetus behind the change. As renewable energy systems have become more efficient, prices have fallen dramatically, a trend set – with concepts like smart metering – to continue. Clean energy is becoming as much an affordable reality as it is the popular aspiration of those wishing to decarbonise their footprint.

That these systems are becoming just as sophisticated as their more established equivalents is amply demonstrated by the growing role electrical drives are playing in their configuration. Recent years have seen drives bring viability to a variety of renewable energy projects: from solar-powered irrigation systems to wind turbines, and from wave power stations to off-grid, sustainable power generation networks.

Types of renewable energy technology

Small scale applications of renewable energy technology, of course, continue to have strong relevance to remote and underdeveloped parts of the world. Motorised water pumps, for example, vital for irrigation purposes or supplying drinking water in isolated, rural communities, are traditionally vulnerable to power cuts or undependable supplies of diesel. Solar PV panels have been developed to provide an effective solution.

A modern solar water pump consists of the PV panels, the pump itself, a motor and a drive to ensure that the motor runs on the correct voltage and at the desired speed. As the sun’s radiation increases during the day, the current from the panel cells rises and the drive softly starts the motor; correspondingly, as night falls, the system automatically shuts off.

The drive, which would normally be taking an AC input from the mains, here must conduct the DC power from the PV cells straight into the DC bus capacitors before converting it to AC power at the right frequency. And in order to manage the natural fluctuations characteristic of solar radiation, the algorithmic function known as Maximum Power Point Tracking (MPPT) optimises the power available to the system from the PV array.

solar-power-renewable-energy

The most challenging feature of renewable energy sources is that their strength levels are not steady: just as sunlight may be more or less powerful depending on weather conditions, so wind power, even more so, may be intermittently strong or weak.

Renewable energy from the wind

While an electrical current that ebbs and flows with the weather might represent no great impediment to the efficiency of a local watering system, it is obviously unsuitable for larger power networks requiring standardised voltage levels and a constant frequency. As pioneering as they were in their day, early stand-alone wind turbines, used to generate domestic electricity, had no wider social usefulness than the windmills of centuries before.

In order to develop modern relevance – as contributors to the national grid – wind turbines had to become fixed speed machines, running at one rotational velocity irrespective of wind conditions. Built-in gearboxes would then generate electricity of the correct frequency for the grid.

Now, thanks to advances in electrical engineering, wind turbines are again becoming variable speed machines. Industrial drives, in particular, are being used in regenerative mode to convert the energy obtained from motors turned by the turbines and to direct it into the grid – efficiently capturing surges in speed such as those caused by wind gusts.

The energy available for harnessing from the turbulence of the planet’s natural kinetic forces is abundant; the challenge lies in converting it into a standardised, usable format. Today’s electrical drive systems are playing a leading role in meeting this challenge.

Renewable energy from the ocean

Wave power furnishes a further example. Islay LIMPET (Land Installed Marine Power Energy Transmitter) was the world’s first grid-connected power station to draw energy from the movement of ocean surface waves. It did so by means of an Oscillating Water Column, a device in which a body of air is repeatedly pushed and pulled through a chamber positioned over seawater that rises and falls with the tides; this airflow drives an energy-generating turbine.

renewable-energy-ocean-waves

During its development and demonstration phase, LIMPET was fitted with an experimental design of turbo-generator in which drives were used both to motor the turbine to optimum speed and to run in regenerative mode, feeding AC to the grid. Maximum turbine speed was continuously adjusted in accordance with the on-board programming and monitoring of the chamber air pressure in real-time.

As a commercial entity LIMPET did not survive. One of the reasons cited for its decommissioning was uncertainty over the future of a subsea power cable linking its remote Hebridean location to the mainland. This, in its way, is illustrative of the uphill climb many renewable energy projects still face if they are to find ways of connecting – in this case, literally – to the mainstream.

What is the future of renewable energy?

The mainstream, however, may itself face an uncertain future. The essentially twentieth-century model of a monolithic, centralised power supply is increasingly being challenged by more flexible, distributed schemes. Energy harvested from a diversity of local sources, now that it can be properly coordinated, is looking more affordable, more efficient and, of course, greener than the old grid.

West Beacon Farm in Leicestershire gives a taste of the idea. This 50-acre homestead uses a combination of PV arrays, wind and water turbines to generate its own power without fossil fuels or, much of the time, electricity from the mains. No retro throwback, the project, on the contrary, relies on advanced electronics, most importantly a suite of programmable drives to monitor and analyse every aspect of the system and distribute power around the farm at controlled levels.

From domestic arrangements to industrial dimensions of the future grid, intelligent monitoring and control will be key concepts when it comes to making a success of the next generation of renewable energy projects.  Across the board, appropriately programmed drive systems are at the front line of this effort to make of natural forces the precisely regulated energy supply of the future.

The post The role of Electric Drives in Renewable Energy appeared first on Automation Engineer.

]]>
https://www.theautomationengineer.com/markets-sectors/role-of-electric-drives-in-renewable-energy/feed/ 0 1786
ODDBOTS: Robots that do the jobs you didn’t know needed doing! https://www.theautomationengineer.com/education/oddbot-robots-doing-human-jobs/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=oddbot-robots-doing-human-jobs https://www.theautomationengineer.com/education/oddbot-robots-doing-human-jobs/#comments Thu, 25 Jul 2019 06:39:04 +0000 https://www.theautomationengineer.com/?p=1794 There was a time not so long ago when robots were still the stuff of science fiction: curious mechanical humanoids, sometimes malevolent, sometimes comic, their natural milieu the blockbuster or B movie. Today, just two or three generations later, the reality is both very different and far more mundane: robots resemble nothing so much as […]

The post ODDBOTS: Robots that do the jobs you didn’t know needed doing! appeared first on Automation Engineer.

]]>
There was a time not so long ago when robots were still the stuff of science fiction: curious mechanical humanoids, sometimes malevolent, sometimes comic, their natural milieu the blockbuster or B movie. Today, just two or three generations later, the reality is both very different and far more mundane: robots resemble nothing so much as oversized power tools on the factory floor engaged in the unglamorous but useful hard graft.

Because usefulness is what robots are all about. The heat of industrial progress has boiled off the fantasy and reduced the idea to its practical essentials: tools for doing jobs that are necessary but too arduous or tedious to be a decent fit for human labour. As much as novelists and filmmakers might not want to hear it, in real life robots turn out to be … boring!

What is an oddbot robot?

Except that they aren’t. And real life is always stranger than fiction.

Because there is a robot whose job it is to feed you with tomatoes while you’re out jogging. You wear the device – called the Tomatan – like a backpack on your shoulders; then, at the flip of a lever, the thing reaches into its backpack with two arms, swings a tomato over its head and into position in front of your mouth. It was developed for Japanese fruit juice giant Kagome by ‘art unit’ Maywa Denki.

And there are others. There are mannequin-like robots who ride camels in camel races in the Arabian Gulf. They even brandish little whips to spur the animals on. Then there are robots whose sole purpose is to hitch lifts in cars and trucks. The first so-called hitchBOT went coast to coast in Canada in 19 rides over 26 days.

oddbots doing jobs didnt know existed

There are plenty of robot makers, it seems, who don’t buy the usefulness argument. Some robots do nothing but play games and work out puzzles. In 2016 a device called Sub1 Reloaded solved a Rubik’s Cube in 0.637 seconds, breaking the record set by an earlier version of the machine fitted with a different processor. Two years later another robot, this one with better motors, got the time down to 0.38 seconds.

Are robots better than humans in … sports and art?

The same fascination with superhuman speed saw researchers at the University of Tokyo develop a robotic hand that always wins at rock-paper-scissors (or janken as the game is called in Japan). The machine takes just one millisecond to spot what shape its human opponent’s hand is forming before making its winning move.

It is in fact not difficult to understand the appeal of these games-playing robots: they are very good at what they do. Whatever else they’re not, they are at least superior performers. Harder to make sense of are those machines that take on the kind of tasks that robots – so convention has it, at least – were never really meant for: the human, creative, even artistic things.

Like playing the ukelele. UkuRobot – designed and put together at the AGH University of Science and Technology in Krakow, Poland – uses 16 servo motors to pluck the instrument’s strings and press its frets in preprogrammed sequence: a microcontroller-driven take, essentially, on that much older musical automaton, the player piano.

Mechanised musicianship (and UkuRobot does sound mechanised) is one thing, but robots making actual art? It’s been done too. The American artist and roboticist Pindar van Arman – whose machine CloudPainter won the 2018 Robot Art prize – specialises in developing deep learning software thanks to which his paintbrush-wielding machines are able to execute ‘a surprising amount of independent aesthetic decisions’.

The robots are now writing books …

The success with which artificial intelligence systems are now capable of emulating human creativity has been further demonstrated in the world of written fiction. In 2016, and without knowing anything about its authorship, the Japanese Nikkei Hoshi Shinichi Literary Award approved into the competition, and past the first round, a short story called ‘The Day a Computer Writes a Novel’. About 20% of it had been composed by an AI program.

robots-doing-human-jobs

Whatever happened to the orthodox wisdom of clearly demarcated roles for robots and humans? If it is wisdom, it is being widely subverted – and not just by the novelty androids that check you in and take your bags at the Henn na Hotel in Tokyo or by the ‘fanbots’ that fill empty seats (substituting for supporters stuck at home) in the Hanwha Eagles baseball stadium, South Korea.

… and become better at being “human”.

The weirdest robots of all are those with the job of actually simulating human beings. There are a number of them. SoftBank Robotics’ Pepper, now five years old, is one of the best-known. This baby-faced, pint-sized semi-humanoid recognises speech and reads emotion so well it can handle interactive low-level employment in banks, shops, schools and nursing homes.

But Hanson Robotics’ Sophia indisputably leads the charge when it comes to robots that look and behave like real people. A cutting-edge fusion of AI, visual data processing and facial recognition (her own face is modelled on Audrey Hepburn’s) and able to hold simple conversations on set subjects, Sophia has impressed and unnerved in a variety of media, from chat shows to music videos. In 2017 she was even made an Innovation Champion for the United Nations Development Programme.

The robots we make, then, evidently reflect far more than just our need for practical assistance with specific workplace tasks. They are expressions, too, of the full gamut of human whimsy and of the outer limits of our creative ambitions. What this says about their direction of travel is by no means clear. But one thing is certain: if you think you know robots, and what they do, and what they might do in the future – in fact, what they might be in the future – it might be wise to think again.

The post ODDBOTS: Robots that do the jobs you didn’t know needed doing! appeared first on Automation Engineer.

]]>
https://www.theautomationengineer.com/education/oddbot-robots-doing-human-jobs/feed/ 1 1794