Five trends in industrial robotics that are helping to transform manufacturing

Today a Meltwater search of ‘robotics’ headlines tallies 24 results across 12 titles including BBC News, Financial Times and HR magazine. We’re dedicated to following the robot trends across all industries - whether it’s AI being used in finance or robot skeletons being used to help paralysed patients walk again. However, as an agency we are particularly focused on the manufacturing industry where many of our clients are helping UK companies to achieve faster and more flexible production.

There are a number of areas where robotic technology is developing at a rapid rate due to a demand for greater flexibility and speed.  It was difficult to come up with only five because there are many different industries within UK manufacturing that have all got the potential to use robots. Nevertheless, we managed to narrow it down. Here are the five that we think are the most exciting to track right now:

Collaborative robots
Initially collaborative robots conjure up visions of smaller robots working alongside people. There are a number of models which have been developed to bring the collaboration to many new areas of production such as electronics, pharmaceutical and automotive as well as small to medium sized manufacturers or workshops. Some of these are able to react to potential collisions and others are ergonomically designed so that if a collision occurs they won’t impact the co-worker. 

Lesser known collaborative robots are the large-scale industrial sized robots which are fitted with sensor technology so that they can stop before a human gets within a certain radius. There are even researchers who are exploring code which make robots interact closely with humans - see Madeline Gannon’s work here.

If larger robots are able to collaborate with us, then we could be lifting cars with a wave of our hands in no time.

Machine tending
Robots are able to be adapted into different configurations according to the needs of a customer. In the machine tending industry, there are many different end tools required and robot manufacturers are creating cells which are especially adaptable for this purpose. 

There is also a growing skills gap. In this industry many companies are introducing robots to perform the manual loading and unloading so that the skilled employees are able to use their expertise to perform other work steps.

Digital maintenance
With the advent of smartphones and 4G, the possibilities for maintenance engineers, factory managers and CEOs to communicate with elements around the factory floor has expanded. When 5G lands, expect more possibilities. But for now, we are able to share with you that remotely monitoring robot performance is a thing. This is achieved using data analysis and as robots are basically told what to do via a form of data (code), it is possible to analyse this data and provide insightful statistics such as how fast the robots are performing and how many parts have been processed.

A lot of us are getting used to analysing data in the form of social media analytics, for example - if there can be this much insight into engagements on smartphones to drive changes in the way we interact with each other, then analysis of robotics performance could mean great changes for the way that manufacturing is performed - and all at the tap of a screen.

Warehouse logistics
As many of us are ordering goods online whether it’s new clothes or a new sofa, warehouses are having to quickly adapt to manage all of the incoming orders. Warehouse automation has become the differentiator for many online brands. Leading names Ocado and Amazon, for example, have invested heavily in robotic technology. Ocado even has its own innovation department within which they are developing their own robots. 

As more of us come to rely on shopping being delivered to our door, greater numbers of warehouses are going to need robots to maintain their position in the market.

Here’s a video of Ocado’s robots in action: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4DKrcpa8Z_E

Food and beverage
As food trends proliferate from veganism and vegetarianism through to the paleo diet and sugar-free, the demand on food and beverage brands to continue to churn out relevant products means flexibility is key.

Robots are adept at providing flexibility. They can pick, pack and place products using vision technology which recognises various shapes and sizes. It all comes down to the programming - which is taking less and less time thanks to innovative programming software. Robots also bring the speed - so if a confectionery brand needs to release a timely limited edition chocolate bar, they can do so without too much hassle.

To understand more about what robots have to offer the food and beverage industry, watch this video from Wired https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SKBHnbYo-4s


AI bias and a new agriculture: ‘AI: More than human at the Barbican’ review part two

Over the last few days we’ve scanned many headlines which herald the future of artificial intelligence such as CMR Surgical’s £1bn Series C funding, a company based in Cambridge that is set to launch a surgical robot and Softbank’s plans to open a cafe run by humanoid robots in Tokyo. These headlines are unsurprising - fast developments in AI technology mean that what was sci-fi literature fifty years ago is now becoming a reality.

Nowhere is this easier to comprehend than an exhibition dedicated to the technology. In August we made the most of the longer evenings and made our way to the Barbican for ‘AI: More than human.’ Situated within the Barbican Estate of the City of London, the Barbican Centre has a large space fit for hosting thought-provoking events showcasing cinema, theatre, dance and art.

So when we arrived at the venue, our brains were already switched on to learn more about AI and how it’s transforming the world around us. 

Here’s the second part of Account Manager Rose’s review of the exhibition.

Through replicating the human brain, scientists were able to develop the first ‘neural network’ in the form of computer programmes in the early 21st century. Here we were, three quarters of the way through the exhibition, and arriving at the stage where AI began to proliferate into hundreds of applications. What enabled AI to be realised? Partly it was the power of modern computing but it was also work conducted by Alex Krizhevsky, who developed AlexNet (software which successfully labelled 15+ million high-resolution images) that got the ball moving.

The link between this development and other outcomes of AI’s influence were demonstrated by an art piece called ‘Myriad (Tulips).’ By Anna Ridler, the art piece on display was just a fraction of the 10,000 pictures of tulips which she photographed and categorised to highlight the human aspect that sits behind machine learning.

If humans influence AI so much, then can we trust those humans to form a fair representation of the world we live in? Can we rely on humans to use the technology for the betterment of the world? Echoing back to part one, many of us are frightened because at its core AI can be seen to represent a side of humanity that we haven’t quite grasped yet.

The data universe

The human influence on AI was explored in great detail in the third part of the exhibition ‘Data Worlds.’ Bringing to the surface AI’s underbelly, this section opened with a cartoon depicting AI in China, where AI not only monitors cities but also keeps track of its population. Later a human intelligent smart home experiment conducted by Lauren McCarthy was explored, where the relationship between smart devices and the private lives of those who use them was shown. Gender Shades by Joy Buolamwini, examined the misrepresentation of race and gender in datasets. All of this conspired to leave me thinking ‘Is AI a bad move for us?’.

It’s reassuring to know that there are some really inspiring people out there conducting research projects that raise these questions. If no questions are asked, and we go full steam ahead, we may end up with a world that we don’t really want. In the concluding paragraph of an article published in The Economist last week, a clause which rung true for me was ‘If problems can be foreseen they can be more easily prevented.’

But as well as being understandably cautious, we should look at the positives that are coming from AI. The final section of the exhibition ‘Endless evolution’ examined AI’s potential to improve our bodies, eliminate disease and even address famine.

The doctor will see you now

Mental health charity Mind has thrown some perspective on the UK’s worry that more and more of us are struggling with our mental health. Apparently the number of people struggling hasn’t changed but it’s the way that we’re coping with it that has gone in a more serious direction.

In order to properly treat mental health we either need a lot more counsellors, psychiatrists and medication or an alternative provided by technology. One section of ‘AI: More than human’ touched on the human need for connection in a progressively digital world with chat bots programmed to be as human as possible communicating with attendees. Experts are already suggesting that AI could help counsel patients and online counseling services such as the Big White Wall and Ieso are already in place in some UK regions.

Furthermore, AI can help doctors to determine diseases early on to prevent life-threatening outcomes. Just this week, Director of Google Health, Michael Macdonnel talked about an early stage AI-powered system which interprets Optical Coherence Tomography retinal images and identifies the signs of sight-threatening disease.

Other companies are experimenting with 3D printing body parts such as Axial3D’s work towards building 3D models of the anatomy using 2D images. The company has already started work on an algorithm which could potentially mean 3D organs become the norm in a hospital near you.

3D printing organs on-demand could potentially save thousands of people.

What’s eating AI?

‘AI: More than human’ also showed a small plant farm nurtured by AI. Small and innocent enough, it echoed plans that are already underway in UK universities for larger farms to begin using smart sensors. These can collect data to provide a greater understanding of crops from a distance so that providing the right fertiliser or amounts of water can be achieved remotely. More judicious use of pesticides can also prevent harm to the soil.

The world’s population is expected to grow from 7.7 billion to nearly 10 billion by 2050. Pitch this against a finite amount of arable land and we need to start thinking about ways to use technology to sustainably produce food, and fast.

Terramera’s Founder Karn Manhas summed it up in an article in Greenbiz earlier this year. He said, ‘Technology such as artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and big data might not be commonly associated with ‘natural’ or ‘health’ movements but actually, these advanced technologies are allowing us to eat cleaner, more locally and more sustainably than ever before.’

Robots picking fruit are helping to close the skills gap as well as reduce food waste. Drone pollinators and self-driving tractors are being developed to help drive efficiency and AI is used to make sense of farm data so that farmers can increase the health of crops, boost yields and ultimately provide better quality, affordable food.

If AI can help us feed the planet, then it’s definitely worth the research.

AI overwhelm

All of this AI in one go was a lot to absorb. It took an AI installation of screens showing butterflies and paintbox colours called ‘What a Loving and Beautiful World’ to round the exhibition off nicely. We could choose to interact directly with the panels, clicking the Chinese calligraphy to influence the space or sit and contemplate the surroundings, in awe of all of the elements combining to create the artwork.

We left asking ourselves the question, “Should we play a passive role in the developments of technology around us or make it our responsibility?”

If AI is to be shaped by human consciousness, then this question should not be asked by attendees of AI: More than human alone, it should be asked across the world.


From Golem to governing society: 'AI: More than human’ review part one

September welcomes the start of another academic year and the media has been busy as usual covering the latest in Science Technology Engineering and Maths (STEM) news. As the skills gap continues to widen, Politics Home reports that primary school teachers are struggling to engage students with STEM subjects. Increasingly, young people have to become responsible for their own development in these areas, dedicating their own time to learn about the latest technologies.

Over the summer we shared with you the list of IET open days taking place across the UK. We hope you and your families got the chance to attend (if you did, please do share with us your experience on Twitter, we’d love to hear from you). To follow our own advice, we also decided to delve a bit deeper into tech over the six weeks holiday and attended the critically acclaimed ‘AI: More than human’ exhibition at The Barbican.

Here’s our Junior Account Manager Rose’s account of the show. Broken into two parts, this is part one:

Sometimes you can see it, other times you can’t, Artificial Intelligence has a habit of sneaking up on us when we least expect it. Whether it’s the use of facial recognition in London’s Kings Cross or the Cambridge Analytica scandal, there are many who are wary of the fast-developing technology, and understandably so.

However, are our fears more to do with how the technology is used, rather than the technology itself? If it’s the former, we need to ask some difficult questions about ethics. Do we trust homo sapiens to implement technology for the greater good of mankind, the planet and other species that live here? ‘AI: More than human at the Barbican’ prompted many such questions. It explored how civilisations across the centuries have worked, albeit sometimes unknowingly, towards today’s rapidly-developing world of advanced technologies. But just as any good exhibition should, it also provided some very interesting answers to how and why the AI revolution has happened and what the future may look like if we continue in the same vein.

For how long have we wanted to create robots?

The exhibition opened with ‘The dream of AI’ and showed how humans have always been curious about the artificial creation of living entities, whether through magic, science, religion or illusion. From the belief in sacred spirits living within inanimate objects in Shintoism through to the Gothic literature of the nineteenth century, the early roots of AI manifest themselves in different ways across various cultures as far back as 400 BCE.

 

Take, for example, the religious traditions of the Golem in Judaism. A mythical figure, the Talbud Jewish holy book says that the golem originated as dust or clay ‘kneaded into a shapeless husk’ and brought to life through complex, ritualistic chants described in Hebrew texts. The above image taken from the artist Lynne Avadenka’s book ‘Breathing Mud’ explores the relationship between sacred letters and the life which is given to the Golem, and by extension to the world. This reminds me of early mathematical diagrams and the coding which is so often used today to program otherwise inanimate objects such as robots.   

Apparently Jewish mystics in Southern Germany made attempts to create a Golem in the Middle Ages and believed this process would bring them closer to God. Is humankind’s fascination with creating artificial life a spiritual exercise after all?

The Uncanny Valley

Later in this section of the exhibition the Gothic tradition of the nineteenth century was cited as significant. Gothic literature such as Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ (1823) and Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ (1897) blur the line between the living and the dead and evoke an emotional response of terror - yet people continue to enjoy these novels and the many films and television series that have stemmed from them.

Is it the element of the uncanny within these stories which appeals to us? Sigmund Freud’s essay ‘The Uncanny’ (1919) defines ‘uncanny’ as ‘belonging to all that is terrible - to all that arouses dread and creeping horror’ but it also explains that the ‘uncanny’ is formed when ‘something unfamiliar gets added to which is familiar’ according to English Professor Jen Boyle's interpretation of the text.

Perhaps this is why we get so perturbed by Count Dracula, essentially a human-being with a deathlike twist. Or Frankenstein the great inventor, who made a monster during a scientific experiment  using electricity and human body parts?

These creatures remind us of us - they’re part human, part monster. However, instead of supporting the positive self-image we like to preserve, they actually highlight the darker side of our psyches. They expose the capacity for human beings to become twisted and give in to their innermost desires.

‘AI: More than human’ goes even further in it’s exploration of the uncanny and its relationship to AI. The Uncanny Valley, a hypothesized relationship between the degree of an object’s resemblance to a human being and the emotional response, was demonstrated in a graph (see below). It shows that as the appearance of a robot is made more human, some people respond more empathetically until it reaches a point where it looks too human, for example social humanoid robots, and then people’s responses quickly become strong disgust.  

The Uncanny Valley Graph

Equally, if AI takes on too many human qualities such as empathy, creativity and leadership, many of us become perturbed, which is continually reflected in the news headlines today. 

Mind machines

The exhibition continued with a close look at the technological developments of the 19th and 20th centuries when the belief that rational thought could be systematised and turned into formulaic rules became more prevalent. Ada Lovelace, often considered the world’s first computer programmer, wrote a letter concerning a ‘calculus of the nervous system’ as early as 1844. As a young girl she was a particularly keen mathematician and was taken by her mother to see a demonstration model of the Difference Engine, the first computing machine designed by Charles Babbage. Ten years later she worked with Babbage on the Analytical Engine, a general purpose computer which had a store of 1,000 numbers of 40 decimal digits. The programming language was very similar to that used later by Alan Turing during the specification of the Bombe in 1941.

During WWII, the Bombe was used by Turning to decode messages sent by the Germans. It played a pivotal role in enabling the Allies to defeat the Nazis. It also led to the development of many other computers such as the ENIAC (1946) and the UNIVAC (1951). 

One of the most significant developments in the history of AI happened in 1956 at the Dartmouth Conference, a two-month event organised by computer scientist John McCarthy. Everybody who was anybody in the world of computers attended to work on the problem of how machines make language, process concepts and improve over time. It may not have met everybody’s expectations but it was there that the term ‘artificial intelligence’ was coined. The UK followed with ‘The Mechanism of Thought’ conference in 1958. 

It would only be a matter of 30 years or so before the Golden Era of computer technology began (think Windows 95!) and the first robots constructed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) would be built. Attila was also the first robot that I saw at ‘AI: More than Human’ which for me marked the great leap made by humans from stationery thinking machines to animate digital creatures.  

This was when the exhibition took a turn into the world of AI as we’ve come to know it today. In part two, I’ll explain how ‘AI: More than Human’ showed the many possible benefits of AI such as its potential to eradicate illnesses and produce whole new food groups. It also examined its darker side - the inherent prejudices it can hold and its capacity to ultimately govern society.

Until next time. 🤖 


Industrial Automation – Topics for 2019

In recent years we
have all rode the IIoT wave, discussed topics with science fiction sounding names
such as ‘augmented reality’ and ‘artificial intelligence’ and generally seen interest
in technological advances in manufacturing undergo an unprecedented evolutionary
period in the general public’s awareness and shows no sign of slowing.

So, what are the hot topics in 2019? There are so many it was difficult to shortlist, so I’ve decided to focus on three topics that I am being most regularly asked to provide content for, by the editors.

IT/OT cybersecurity – A Manufacturer’s Greatest Challenge

You may be surprised to learn how many industrial automation and processing companies are only just becoming aware with this potentially catastrophic threat.  The organisations already in the know, are on record as saying cybersecurity is their single greatest threat.

Cyber attackers are exploiting security flaws that result from gaps between the IT/OT infrastructure as companies introduce Industrial IoT (IIoT) devices and Edge computing equipment. Integrating information from sensors both in and out of control systems creates confusion between a corporations IT/OT responsibility. Adding external suppliers further complicates enforcement of security requirements for new assets.

To help combat this, companies need to converge their IT and OT cybersecurity to clearly define responsibilities and remove any potential security gaps.  This approach will help ensure more consistent security levels across entire organizations reducing the organization’s overall cyber risk.

Cloud
and Edge Solutions 

With the convergence of information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) and the industry’s continued transformation, manufacturers are rethinking the way they operate their businesses. The use of Cloud and Edge solutions is enabling companies to have better control and insight over their industrial processes. 

Edge technology reduce the volumes of data that needs to be moved and the distance the data must travel.  The analysed and processed data from different plants is stored in the Cloud, enabling critical business information to be accessed and controlled solely by IT.

This approach means the deployment of Edge devices
with embedded analytics, Edge servers, gateways and Cloud infrastructure enables
manufacturers to support business decisions in real time, monitor assets,
provides analytics and machine learning, and artificial intelligence (AI) to understand
and take appropriate action.

This can help manufacturers reduce production inefficiencies, compare product quality against manufacturing conditions, and pinpoint potential safety, production or environmental issues.

IIoT
Continues to Evolve

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is without doubt a technology that will become even more widespread in 2019.

The IIoT continues to be de developed for comprehensive systems
monitoring and maintaining complex large-scale production lines. It uses machine-to-machine
communication to improve safety, production time and operating efficiencies. 

IIoT, connectivity enables faster communications
and response to change. Advancements in AI and machine learning will allow IIoT
systems to more effective including monitoring, predicting and reacting to factory
and product line issues, keeping production going and ultimately improving
safety and a company’s financial performance.

The fundamentals of the IIoT is not just an industrial technology; we
can see parallels with the IoT as we bring this technology into our homes.  Heating thermostats, burglar alarms and I can
even speak from experience. The lighting in my house is controlled by a smart
ap on my connected to the cloud, so they come on when my alarm goes off, and come
when the sun sets in a shade of colour just right for my mood and I can switch
them off from my phone when I remember I left the bathroom light on when I went
to work. Perhaps a topic for another day.


women in engineering day

Supporting International Women in Engineering day 2019

On the 23rd June, the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) will be celebrating its sixth year of International Women in Engineering Day. The international campaign was created to raise the profiles of women working within the engineering industry, create diversity, and focus on the ever-expanding career opportunities available to women.

Did you
know that according to 2018 statistics just 12.37% of engineers in the UK are
women?

The WES
in Britain are doing more each year to encourage young women to explore and
consider a career in engineering, whether that be through hands-on student
groups, talks or awards.

Here at
Armitage, we believe men and women should be given the same opportunities to
begin a career in engineering; and it’s great to see such an important event
celebrating the outstanding achievements of female engineers throughout the
world.

In order to support the International Women in Engineering Day, we will be taking part in their great campaign at midday on Sunday 23rd June for one hour, by spreading awareness using our social media platforms. The overall aim is to get #INWED19 trending so we can reach and inspire those around the UK and internationally.

You
could also help connect, support and inspire individuals and the industry by
joining the movement.

For
more information visit the INWED website here.

#TransformTheFuture

#INWED19


How to create value by converging your OT/IT operations

I am increasingly being asked to
write about the convergence between the worlds of OT and IT, this blog
discusses this issue and asks how industrial automation companies can help
themselves.

Operational Technology (OT) and Information Technology (IT) convergence has become an important next step for companies on the IoT journey. But many companies are still playing catch-up.

  • OT refers to control and automation technologies which support operations
    – so shop floor equipment such as factory automation convey systems
  • IT refers to computer systems based in finance, HR and sales - so
    payroll, office computing etc

Historically
these activities have been separated because of security and compliance issues
however manufacturing companies are now playing catch-up and being tasked with
completely changing their business structures.

These changes
are happening because of the following;

  • The increased use of Microsoft technology with the adoption of databases to collect and analyse production and process data
  • The adoption of Ethernet-based communication protocols at machine level
  • The dispersal of web-based user interfaces
  • The increased popularity of mobile solutions to access data and perform tasks requiring Wi-Fi networks at the factory floor level

Companies that still have separate departments for OT and IT have a huge challenge, but it’s not insurmountable.  Making sure company goals are aligned and undergoing training programmes which bring OT and IT together to share different skillsets, will help to move these changes forward.

So, is this
convergence a good thing or is it potentially dangerous? Opinion is split with
some industry spokespeople suggesting this new
business model is  introducing
significant new risks, many of which are
catching organisations entirely unprepared. For example, nearly 90% of
organisations have now experienced a security breach within their Supervisory
Control and Data Acquisition and Industrial Control Systems (SCADA/ICS)
architectures, with more than half of those breaches occurring in just the last 12 months! And even more alarming,
most of those breaches have resulted in a high or critical impact on their
business, from compromising their ability to meet compliance requirements, to
decreased functionality and financial stability, and even affecting employee safety.

For those OT organisations responsible for
critical infrastructure, any sort of compromise needs to be taken extremely
seriously.

This evolution
isn’t going away.  Time will tell how
many companies embrace the change and effectively merge these two vitally essential
functions and how many will ignore it, perhaps at their peril.


Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality

The Rise of Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality in Manufacturing

From consumer to manufacturing, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technologies are revolutionising the world today. VR is aiding manufacturers to digitally simulate the product or environment, while AR helps manufacturers to project digital products/ information into the real-world environment. Businesses are now planning their production and assembly processes out in full in a virtual world. In turn, this is used to speed up factory and plant commissioning and operation.

We are seeing big movement, especially in the high-tech industry sectors; but it will be interesting to see how the technology will pan out in small/ medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) later along the line. In this blog, we’ll discuss how VR and AR are impacting how we manufacture today.

 

Virtual Vs. Augment Reality

Virtual reality is currently booming in the consumer market and is easily distinguishable by the big VR headsets that come with it. Once you’ve put on the headset you have immersed yourself in a new digital environment. VR headsets incorporate both visual and audio simulation.

Whereas augmented reality is a slightly different concept that involves transferring a digital interface onto the real world. Augmented reality is more commonly associated with the Pokémon Go app or IKEA’s new feature that allows you to view your chosen sofa or wallpaper into your own home; projecting a digital animation in the real word.

It's clear to see that the industry is embracing VR and AR technologies as a way to display the full abilities of their systems. Last year, BEUMER group, a client of our sister agency Napier, used VR and AR technologies at their exhibition stand. The virtual reality allowed visitors to fully immerse themselves into a real-life example. This VR demonstrated the abilities of their system, from start to finish.

The team also set up an augmented reality that demonstrated the capabilities of BEUMER baggage systems. The augmented reality showcased what the future of technology-lead airports would look like. Read the full blog on the stand we had at the air exhibition show here

 

Design Development

Taking it back to the very beginning, VR and AR are supporting the development of products. We are now using VR and AR to optimise and refine designs from the very start; allowing us to review, adjust, and quickly modify design concepts and ideas before they even go into production. The tools provide capabilities to animate and visualise what is being designed, leading to virtual testing and analysis. With better technologies being utilised this early in the production process, we can expect greater products at the end.

Another benefit of using VR and AR in manufacturing is the virtual product simulations for new products in their development phase. Virtual product simulations are used to make it easy for anyone to understand the look and feel of upcoming products. Which means there is less of a need for everyone in the team to hold a technical background and understanding of complex 2D and 3D models and drawings. Which is an essential ability to have when looking for buy-in during the product development phase.

 

Full Virtual World of Production

We can begin to look at how Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality are affecting the production as a whole rather than for a single product. VR and AR enable businesses to speed up their operations and plan beyond one product, allowing them to plan out their whole production and assembly process in unison in one virtual world. More practically, AR and VR are aiding organisations to maximise productivity by positioning automation lines, production cells, robots, and people.

Rehearsing and training staff is a big task and guess what… AR and VR can do it for you! Younger generations are increasingly preferring interactive based learning. With the adoption of augmented and virtual reality, these game-like style teaching tools becoming a new trend.