Manufacturing AUTOMATION

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Shock and automation


This month’s column focuses on two major subjects: the future of automation technology and why we resist change for innovative automation processes.

I have been involved with the Congress on the Future of Engineering Software (COFES) for about a decade, and have written about my adventures there over the years. The COFES charter aims to keep engineers that build and design “stuff” on top of technology.

The COFES 2014 conference took place in Scottsdale, Ariz., in April. The conference has changed. The talks and subject matter focused on events that we anticipate happening in five years. In the past, we talked about what will happen in two years. There were some exciting keynotes and roundtable discussions this year.

I co-hosted two discussion groups at this year’s conference, and I was overwhelmed by the number of people in attendance. One session was entitled “Swarms, Autonomous Devices and Self-programming Machines,” and the other was “Cognitive Computing and the Engineering Workplace.” Let me expand on these sessions.

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In regards to swarms, we need to be able to program things to program themselves. Concepts are emerging. What tools will we need for this? And how do we set them in motion? Even more important, what don’t we know?

In cognitive computing, we can take a lesson from IBM’s computer, Watson, which is designed to process information more like a human by understanding natural language, generating hypotheses based on evidence and learning as it goes. The ability to generate hypotheses allows one to deal with customer relations, finance and R&D. What will this technology mean to engineering and design? It certainly will change the workplace and help engineers solve tough problems.

But we have a problem with new technologies, and the strong blockages that occur. Let me share two stories.

I was one of the young drivers of the early rubber-tired tractors (Fordson). The farm equipment at the time was horses and the big, tall tractors with steel tires. My Uncle Digger was the first in Boston, Mass., to utilize these newfangled Fordson tractors, and his friends would come by to make fun of it. But Uncle Digger got three crops a year compared to the two using horsepower. Although his friends could see the difference, they did not turn over to the new technology.

The second story is about my involvement in the development of the anti-lock braking system for automobiles. We used to argue about automatic choke for automobiles. Acceptance of anything new is slow. Humans seem to have a propensity to never change, no matter what. “What’s good enough for me should be good enough for you.”

The above two stories are great examples of the 20-year wall of acceptance — most technologies take 20 years to be accepted in the marketplace.

But still, new technologies will continue to emerge and evolve. One of the obvious changes in future automation systems is machine-to-machine (M2M) being performed in the Cloud. Envision, if you will, all sensors and effectors having the same access to the Cloud. The topology of connection is software in the Cloud. Software content goes from five to 10 to 20 per cent, and future systems will be 80 per cent software. I used to give lectures to Mitre, a not-for-profit organization that operates R&D centres sponsored by the U.S. federal government, about the future of computers. The hardware would just be memory, a processor and input/output. They would ask where the logic was. Today that’s funny, but it wasn’t funny at the time. Our future automation engineers will smile when somebody asks, “But where is the network?”

I’ve already met resistance on this concept, although other technologies have jumped on board the Cloud boat.

We talked about two significant advances being presented at the conference and another one being offered by the software people. Both will take time and will eventually overcome questions such as
security, availability and reliability.  

Fear not; the future does not need your approval. It will happen anyway.

This column originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.