Future gazing

Monday November 24, 2014
Written by
Nov. 24, 2014 - Almost everything in automation needs sensing and measurement. There’s definitely a bright future here. That’s why I’m focusing this month’s column on future trends in sensitivity and measurement — a fitting topic as we say goodbye to another year and look at what’s ahead.

Since we are talking about the future, we can’t be too accurate. We just need to look at existing trends. So what exactly are some of the trends? The thrust into artificial intelligence initiated by IBM’s game-playing machines was paramount. The ability for machines to make inferences “better than humans” is a significant benchmark for the future. Classical future criteria such as smaller, smarter components, lower cost and more reliable systems are clear. But the impact of IBM’s Wilson will be a 10-year renaissance of computer technology.

In the future, the sensitivity of sensors and measurements will be improved, the size will be reduced and the cost will become more palatable. We will be able to measure more than the usual. We will be able to measure the abstracts of density, composition and purity. Purity and density of medical production are key to consistent results. It also reduces the cost. This clearly has an impact on health and food. As an older fellow in the automation business, I take many medications, both prescription and over-the-counter. Supplier confidence and manufacturing is a key element to cost reduction. Animal and human tests are expensive and need to be extrapolated across a broader spectrum of usage. The statistics of food and medicine and other critical elements should be a function of the automation system, not of post-production and analysis.

Today, we want to know about the material that’s being processed. We want to know physical dimensions and contamination, and single measurements won’t cut the mustard. In the future, multiple, simple measurements will offer a road for inference. Statistical measurement and “loosely coupled sets” using statistics are the future. Since we are going to be sending all of our “stuff” off to the big data cloud, complexity of connectivity will be in the cloud and the measurement will be inferred, not necessarily actual.

Speaking of big data, the topological interface of an automation system will be represented by topological management in the cloud. The system of automation that we are now used to will become mostly software via manipulation of big data. This means that each sensing element will have an interface to a standardized cloud array that will represent the traffic manager of information for the system.

We can expect to see measurements made with considerations using nano and quantum mechanics. Nano carbon tubes will be used for very small accurate pressures. We may be able to build an elementary system on a desktop via USP connectivity. One example is printers. Printers at one time were the size of my barn. Now they are the size of my suitcase and even smaller. The actual size of processes will become small, since the size will depend only upon senses and effectors, not upon complexity and interconnection.

The system is being defined differently today. A system consists of operators, power, environmental, marketing and outsourcing. In the future, the marketplace itself will be the control element that the system will respond to. Retail electric power already does this. Nobody physically manages the power output of a power station — it’s automatic. Soon automobiles, medicine and food will follow the same road. Can you imagine a supermarket with shelves that replenish automatically?

Components in an automation system will be smaller, lower cost, computer- and crowd-compatible, and capable of modifying system performance based on market sensitivity. The work of building a system will become 80 per cent software and 20 per cent hardware. We will begin to design apps for automation that can be attached during the design of the automation system.

I sense great sources of innovation coming in most modern cultures. There’s no better time than now to get with it.


This column originally appeared in the November/December 2014 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.

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