Man or machine? Is HAL taking over?

04/08/2015
As we enter the golden age of robotics, the fear that robots will take human jobs has slowly spread. Jobs such as assembly, farming and surgery are already being delegated to robots. Here, Darren Halford of European Automation considers if our jobs are really at risk.

epa245This speed of technological change has led Google’s director of engineering, Ray Kurzwell, to estimate that robots will, “reach human levels of intelligence by 2029”.

For many, the idea of artificial intelligence surpassing human intellect is a daunting thought. Whilst certainly not the first example of evil artificial intelligence in pop culture, HAL the homicidal computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey is a prime example of the recurring ‘robot uprising’ theme we see depicted in film and literature.

However, even in the far-flung worlds of science fiction, robots have proven to be predominately helpful – just as they have in manufacturing. From traditional six-axis, SCARA and Cartesian robots to Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) robots generally create jobs; increasing the overall number of positions available.

One of the automation trends for 2015, AGVs are mobile robots that navigate independently using magnets, lasers, vision and geoguidence and are used commonly in industrial settings to transport materials and goods in a factory or warehouse. AGVs can increase efficiency, ultimately reducing costs and, because of this, their market is growing at a rapid pace.

Unlike automated guided vehicles, more complex, manufacturing robots are usually confined to operating inside cages known as robotic work cells. These physical barriers protect human workers from potential accidents and the sheer power and speed of malfunctioning robotics. If you’ve ever seen a robot at a trade show try to return to zero without back up in the event of power cut, you will know exactly what I mean.

Despite this restriction, advances in programming mean that some robots can now operate, without enclosures, alongside humans on the factory floor. This integration revolutionises the job roles of both robot and human workers. This increases the productivity of menial tasks and frees human workers to focus on jobs that are more sophisticated.

Although still in its early stages, this man-machine collaboration is a huge step towards humans and robots working harmoniously together.

Robot trends
Cell free robotics was a theme at this year’s Hannover Messe, which also featured ABB’s wonderfully cool YuMi, a two-armed collaborative assembly assistant that can see and feel its way around an application. It has soft, padded arms that allow it to interact safely with its human counterparts.

There is no denying that some very menial labour will be replaced with technology. In fact, Deloitte and the University of Oxford predict that robots could ultimately replace ten million unskilled workers.

However, throughout history, technology has created thousands of new jobs while eliminating old ones. Consider the first half of the twentieth century, where a large percentage of working Londoners were limited to work in manufacturing and heavy industry.

Whilst some might argue that IT and communications led to a decline in heavy industry, others would say it freed workers to ‘break the habit’ and pursue a wide range of vocations outside of the factory. This, in turn, established London as the cosmopolitan metropolis and services hub that it is today.

The first robots might have been installed in factories in the 1960s, but we are only now truly entering the golden age of robotics. It will open doors to new industries and generate new roles requiring creativity, judgment, empathy and a thirst for innovation – human skills which robots can’t yet replicate. So it’s not time to worry about HAL and his compatriots just yet; your job is safe.


It’s not a Cable, It’s an Antenna!

30/07/2015
Keith Blodorn of ProSoft Technology, tells us there are several conditions in industrial communication systems where using a radiating cable as an antenna offers major benefits.

Why would someone want a cable that acts like an antenna? After all, much research and development has gone into improving cable shields precisely to prevent this! As it turns out, there are several conditions in industrial communication systems where using a radiating cable as an antenna offers major benefits. The most common cases are for communicating to equipment moving along a track, replacing slip rings in rotating equipment, and providing a clear RF signal where obstructions or plant-floor layout prevent a clear “Line-of-Sight” to transmit from a traditional antenna.

What is a Radiating Cable?
Kabel_radiating_thick.jpg_ico500A radiating cable is a long, flexible antenna with slots to radiate RF signals that can be installed around corners, along monorail systems and through tunnels to propagate wireless data signals in situations that are tough or impossible for traditional antennas. Since the radiating cable antenna can be mounted within inches of where the signal needs to be received, it isolates the wireless signal from going to other machines that may be on the plant floor. And, the cable comes in multiple lengths to meet the needs of most applications.

In a typical coaxial cable, a metallic shield wrapped around the cable isolates the signals transmitted on the cable from the electromagnetic waves in the air around the cable. This helps to maintain a strong signal on the cable, and prevents that signal from creating interference with radio frequency (RF) equipment nearby. Without the shield, the cable would act like an antenna, transmitting the signal it carries into the air, and receiving radio waves from other RF devices. For those who remember analog cable TV, we experienced this phenomenon when we saw “ghost” images on certain channels. Instead of just receiving the video signal sent from the cable company along the coaxial cable, we were also receiving that channel’s over-the-air broadcast of the same video signal as picked up by the coaxial cable working like an antenna. This was an unintentional use of radiating cable, and produced undesirable results.

The same principle that gave us blurry television pictures back then is used to make a cable that intentionally radiates signals. This is called a radiating cable, or leaky feeder cable. The difference between radiating cable and poorly shielded TV cables is that the shield on a radiating cable is designed with exacting slots that allow for the transmission of signals at a specific frequency. In this way, these cables are tuned to the RF equipment to which they are connected. The cable’s shield still works to block unwanted RF, but will allow signals of the correct frequency to emit from, and be received by the cable inside. That makes a radiating cable act just like an antenna.

Placing RF Signals Precisely in Crowded Plants
Another benefit of using radiating cables comes from the ability to place RF power very precisely. The use of wireless communication equipment in factories is growing rapidly, which means that factory floors are becoming crowded with radio waves on all the common frequencies. For machine builders who need to use wireless, this creates a real problem. With a radiating cable solution, new machines can co-exist within the crowded plant RF space without adding to the cacophony. This is because radiating cable emits RF in one direction, and only needs as much power as it takes to link with another antenna at a relatively fixed distance. While the plant’s general wi-fi network is screaming to everyone who will listen, the equipment on the new machine can operate at a whisper.

This benefit is especially important in rotating machinery which traditionally used slip rings to conduct communication signals from I/O on the moving part of the machine to a controller on the fixed part. Slip rings are expensive to install, require regular maintenance, and even still suffer from poor communication speeds due to noise on the rings and in the pick-ups that ride on the rings. Traditional wireless solutions can work, but often the motion of the machine will obstruct the wireless link, requiring higher gain antennas that result in greater RF “noise pollution.” Radiating cable is used in these applications to provide a clear, consistent path to the rotating antenna, without interfering with other nearby wireless systems.

Flexibility
Radiating cable also benefits from its inherent flexibility. Since it is a cable, it can follow almost any path to provide wireless signal in places where antennas just can reach. One of the early applications for radiating cable was to enable two-way radio connectivity for emergency workers inside highway and rail tunnels. In the industrial setting, there are many hard-to-reach places, whether those are actual tunnels or “RF tunnels” created by obstructions. An example of that would be a warehouse, where the metal racks and merchandise on those racks can cause obstruction and reflection issues for a traditional antenna. Radiating cable can be installed along the aisle ways to provide a strong signal just where it’s needed.

Summary
For certain industrial communication challenges, radiating cable offers unique advantages. Radiating cable provides consistent data rates over a long distance, can be shaped to provide signal in difficult-to-reach environments, and reduces plant RF congestion by constraining its RF signal to the exact area where it’s needed. These benefits are especially valuable in applications where machines move along a pre-defined path, where the terrain of a facility is particularly difficult to reach with broad coverage, and where signals on rotating equipment are otherwise transmitted through slip rings. Care must be taken in selecting and installing the components of a radiating cable solution. However, with a bit of preparation and advice from an experienced industrial RF vendor, a radiating cable system can provide trouble-free communications for your toughest applications.

• ProSoft Technology® designs industrial communication solutions that connect automation products seamlessly. ProSoft Technology is a highly diversified, customer intimate, global organization with a focus on quality and ease-of-use. Their products include in-chassis communication modules for PLC/PAC controllers, standalone protocol gateways, and a wide range of robust, field-proven wireless solutions. These are found in applications spanning the industrial marketplace.


VOC monitoring keep things on track!

14/07/2015

Award-winning geotechnical company, BAMRitchies Limited, is using an Ion Science handheld Tiger photoionisation detector (PID) for nightly monitoring of volatile organic compound (VOCs) concentrations during on-site headspace testing of contaminated soil samples on railway contracts.

SONY DSC

Supplied through Ion Science’s British distributor, Shawcity, as a replacement for one of the company’s older models, BAMRitchies chose the well-proven Tiger for its portability and long battery life between charging. As it is being used in all weather conditions and environments, the instrument’s market-leading humidity and contaminant resistant PID technology was also a key factor.

Ion Science’s Tiger is independently verified as being the best performing PID, providing the most stable, repeatable readings, when tested against competing instruments in humid and contaminated conditions.

BAMRitchies provides fully integrated ground engineering services, including ‘design and construct, for government organisations, local authorities, main contractors, utilities and public / private companies. The company’s worldwide reputation is based on innovative solutions to complex geotechnical problems with reliable delivery by a large, highly skilled and well-equipped workforce.

Stuart McQuade, Senior Geotechnical Engineer at BAMRitchies comments: “Our consultant engineers specify prompt information on contamination levels on a very regular basis making it essential that we quickly found a replacement for our old instrument which had started to fail. As we’ve used Ion Science PIDs before and found them to be good quality and reliable, we were content to go with Shawcity’s recommendation of the Tiger PID.

“Consistency of performance was a key requirement as it is being used to test approximately five to ten soil samples per night. The Tiger is in use during the most severe weather and in the harshest environments so a robust design together with humidity and contamination resistance was also very important to us. Like other Ion Science instruments, the Tiger is extremely easy to use and has proved very reliable so far.”

Providing a dynamic detection range of 1 parts per billion (ppb) to 20,000 parts per million (ppm), the Tiger offers the widest measurement range of any other VOC instrument on the market.

Ready to use, straight out of the box, the instrument requires no complex set up procedures via a PC to perform basic functions and provides the best available VOC detection and software features available.

Ion Science’s Tiger also has the fastest response time on the market of just two seconds and can be connected directly to a PC via the USB offering extremely fast data download capabilities.

It has been designed for the safe replacement of batteries in hazardous environments and is intrinsically safe (IS) – meeting ATEX, IECEx, UL and CSA standards.


New monitoring network for Scottish ports!

05/07/2015

Historically, ferry masters operating off the west coast of Scotland would have to sail to a port and on arrival visually assess the weather and tide conditions before deciding whether safe berthing alongside the pier or quayside would be possible. This wastes time and fuel, and can causes immense frustration among passengers, who may see ferries come close to a port, but thereafter depart without berthing when conditions are determined by the ferry Master to be unsafe. These ferries provide a critically important lifeline service to the islands, so the reliability of ferry services is extremely important.

MV_Caledonian_Isles

With multiple sites in island locations, remote access to accurate local data providing live information on tide level and key climatic conditions could facilitate substantial improvements to the service by aiding the Masters to make a more informed decision at an earlier stage in the voyage – in some instances even before departing the previous port or harbour. The berthing of ferries is a highly skilled job, particularly during bad weather, and the decision on whether a specific ferry can safely berth at a specific port is subjective and ultimately can only be taken by the ferry Master.

Following a competitive tendering process Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited (CMAL), which owns many of the ferries, ports and harbours in the region, procured a network of 15 tide and weather stations from instrumentation specialist OTT Hydrometry. The new monitoring equipment provides live data on port conditions to enable the ferry sailing decisions to be made in a timely manner.

CMAL Harbour Master David McHardie says: “OTT installed the first monitoring station in August 2014 and the network is now almost complete with sensors providing data every 1 minute via UHF radio to ‘gateways’ in the ferry offices, which then submit the data via the internet to a central server, which can be remotely accessed by authorised users.

“We have a regulatory requirement to monitor the tide level in our statutory harbours, but this system also provides essential weather information for our ports. In the past, these measurements were taken manually, so the availability of continuous multiparameter data is an enormous improvement – not just in the quality and value of the information, but also in the safety benefits for harbour operations staff, that this provides.”

OTT_Monitoring_Station

OTT Monitoring Station

The safety considerations involved with the berthing of ferries relates not just to passengers and crew but also to the pier hands that assist with mooring operations in a wide variety of often extreme weather conditions. “Mooring operations are inherently high risk activities; handling ropes can become extremely heavy when wet and subject to enormous forces when under strain,” David says. “So, it is important for us to be able to assess the impact of wind, temperature and waves to protect harbour operations staff. Severe weather berthing conditions can also potentially cause damage to ferries and the structures within the ports, so again, detailed data on localised conditions can help prevent accidents and support insurance claims when necessary.”

The availability of live data on port conditions therefore enables the ferry Masters to make better informed decisions at an earlier stage, thereby saving time, fuel and costs. It also means that passengers are provided with earlier warnings of potential ferry cancellation.

Emphasising the growing need for data, David says: “In recent years, severe weather events appear to have become more frequent and they seem to develop faster; for example, since the monitoring network was installed, we have recorded a sudden drop in temperature of 8°C in just 5 minutes at the port of Armadale on the Isle of Skye, and a maximum wind gust of 96 knots at Castlebay on the Isle of Barra. These conditions represent a rapid deterioration of conditions and the monitoring network enables us to respond quickly and effectively.”

Each monitor is located adjacent to the main berthing area on the pier with a lockable GRP control box. The system is comprised of: an OTT radar level sensor; a Lüfft ultrasonic weather monitor measuring wind speed, gust and direction, air temperature and barometric pressure; an Adcon radio unit with back-up batteries and a marine grade antenna. The radar tide level sensor is an OTT RLS, a non-contact sensor employing pulse radar technology with a large 35m measurement range. Both the RLS and the weather sensors, which have no moving parts, have extremely low power consumption, which is vitally important for installations at remote sites. At two locations it was not possible to install a radar sensor so an OTT CBS (bubbler sensor) was installed providing comparable levels of accuracy and reliability.

Robin Guy managed the monitoring network project on behalf of OTT Hydrometry. He says: “We were obviously delighted to be awarded this contract; it’s a good example of the bespoke monitoring systems that we are able to develop, integrating our sensor, datalogging and telemetry technologies to meet customers’ specific needs.

“Before awarding the contract to OTT, David visited four of our existing installations at the Greenock Ocean Terminal near Glasgow to check the reliability of our equipment in demanding conditions. However, in addition to the ruggedness of this equipment, it has also been designed to cope with interruptions to the mains power supply. The monitors are therefore battery powered and data is transferred from the monitors to the port office gateway via low power radio.”

Monitors on end of pier!

Monitors on end of pier!

Now that the CMAL monitoring system is installed, David is looking for ways to leverage the value of the data. For example, radio data transmission works very well over water, so it should be possible to fit the same technology on ferries so that the ferry Masters can access the data directly, instead of having to call the port office for a verbal update. The OTT monitoring network also incorporates an email alert system, and whilst this has not yet been configured, it will be possible in the future for ferry masters to receive email alerts warning them when pre-specified port conditions arise. “We would also like to eventually make the data available to the public as part of an enhanced harbours information system,” David says. “However, when a ferry has berthed, with the monitoring system being located on the pier, the vessel can cause a wind shadow; which means the wind data during that period can be potentially misleading. It has to be remembered that this system remains only an aid to navigation.”

Summarising, Robin Guy says: “This system demonstrates the value of remote monitoring data, but also highlights the importance of low power, rugged, reliable instruments in harsh environments. The modularity of the system is also very important because it enables us to deploy the most appropriate instruments in each individual location.”


Demand for IoT testing and monitoring equipment.

28/06/2015

As the trend towards connected living and the Internet of Things (IoT) continues to permeate home, work and city solutions, the need to keep tabs on a myriad of connected devices will thrust the global IoT testing and monitoring equipment market into the spotlight. The incorporation of machine-to-machine (M2M) communication – central to IoT deployment – as well as modules that require less power and bandwidth will bring with it several challenges that turn into a boon for testing and monitoring vendors.

New analysis from Frost & Sullivan, Global fands Equipment Market, finds that the market earned revenues of $346.9 million in 2014 and estimates this to reach $900.1 million in 2021.

“As the escalating number of connected devices adds breadth to the IoT concept, solutions that can proactively monitor, test and zero in on anomalies in the infrastructure will garner a sustained customer base,” said Frost & Sullivan Measurement and Instrumentation Research Analyst Rohan Joy Thomas. “The incorporation of new testing and wireless standards will broaden testing requirements and further aid development in IoT testing and monitoring equipment.”

Educating end users on the importance of interoperability and the requirement for specialised testing equipment is vital for market success. Currently, the lack of end-user awareness on the need for proactive solutions stalls the large-scale use of IoT testing and monitoring equipment. End-user inability to identify the most appropriate solution from a plethora of identical systems too limits adoption.

High capital expenditure associated with procuring equipment coupled with inadequate standardisation around IoT adds to the challenge. Such concerns over high investment costs and standardisation should abate as IoT matures in the years ahead.

“Industry vendors must fill the gaps in their product portfolio in order to facilitate an open testing environment and lay the foundation for long-term growth,” concluded Thomas. “To that end, building partnerships with or acquiring participants from other industry niches will help solution providers extend their horizons in the global IoT testing and monitoring equipment market.”


Industry 4.0 business ecosystem will change dynamics in the Global industry.

26/06/2015
Frost &Sullivan: a new IoIT (Internet of Industrial Things) supplier ecosystem estimated to reach €420 billion by 2020
Ind4_IoT Frost & Sullivan plans to publish four new studies dedicated to the evolution of the Smart Manufacturing paradigm and new cooperations and alliances in the industrial services market during July 2015.
• Internet of Industrial Things – The Vision and the Realities
• Services 2.0–The New Business Frontier for Profitability
• The Safety-Security Argument: Expanding Needs in a Connected Enterprise
• The Industrie 4.0 Business Ecosystem: Decoding the New Normal

In the evolution towards the Smart Manufacturing paradigm, end-user requirements are set to evolve and become more complex than ever before. Global suppliers find it increasingly difficult to meet the growing needs of the end-users that are further augmented with a very high degree of complexity. But the current scenario will also provide the biggest opportunity to realign one’s exiting business approach and forge alliances and partnerships with market participants. The result would be a newly built supplier ecosystem that can effectively address end-user needs for growth in near and long term perspectives.

According to a recent Frost & Sullivan research on the industrial services market, a new wave of influence is disrupting business dynamics between end-user and supplier. This change is founded on new service paradigms that are enabling end-users to achieve high degrees of cost optimization and enhanced operational efficiency. For instance, end-users and supplier equations are currently being determined by service architectures founded on frameworks defined by advanced Information and Communication Technology (ICT). Services based on such advanced ICT concepts, were found to hold more than 75% of the global industrial services market in 2014.

While spare parts and maintenance still retain a major share of the service revenue models, the growth of advanced services is expected to witness a CAGR of 20 percent over the coming years.

“In order to design and deliver such advanced services, industrial suppliers are required to forge partnerships with cloud and data analytics vendors. In some end use cases even the most rudimentary solutions built on an integrated analytics package have enabled suppliers’ upsell and increase product prices by up to 10 percent. It also helped achieve differentiation in a technology saturated market place,” notes Frost & Sullivan Practice Director Industrial Automation & Process Control and Measurement & Instrumentation, Muthukumar Viswanathan.

Major structural revisions are also expected on the shop floor driven by the advent of M2M (machine-to-machine) communication. By 2020, nearly 12 billion devices in the industry are poised to be connected via advanced M2M technology.

“There is still a lot of scepticism surrounding this rapid transition towards the smart factory framework, however. This can be summed up by a key question that surfaces across all major industrial discussion forums. Who will be the single responsible entity for the integrated solution delivered to an end-user?” Mr. Viswanathan continues. “I would opine that although the emerging business demands would warrant an ecosystem approach, there will still be one key partner who would liaise with the end-user and agree to be the ultimate risk bearer of the final solution delivered to the customer”.


Bringing Britain’s key capabilities together driving strengths in robotics research & engineering.

24/06/2015

Britain’s ability to develop and exploit the vast potential of Robotics and Autonomous Systems was given a major boost today with the formal launch of The EPSRC UK Robotics and Autonomous Systems Network (UK-RAS Network).

UK-RASThe Network will bring together the country’s core academic capabilities in robotics innovation under national coordination for the first time and encourage academic and industry collaborations that will accelerate the development and adoption of robotics and autonomous systems.

The Network will be unveiled this evening at the Science Museum in London following a public lecture on Robot Ethics, organised by IET Robotics and Mechatronics Network in association with the Science Museum Lates and supported by the EPSRC UK-RAS Network.

The new network has already received strong support by major industrial partners, the Science Museum and Britain’s major professional engineering bodies including Royal Academy of Engineering, IET, and The Institution of Mechanical Engineers. The Network will expand to include broader stakeholders including key national laboratories and leading international collaborators in both academia and industry. The global market for service and industrial robots is estimated to reach $59.5 billion (€53.1 billion) by 2020.

Commenting on the launch, the Minister of State for Universities and Science, Jo Johnson said: “Robotics and autonomous systems have huge growth potential for the UK as one of our Eight Great Technologies. To get it right we need to draw on the expertise of the UK’s research base and the ambition of industry. By working collaboratively, this network will only help to accelerate growth of a high-tech sector and pave the way for new high-value, skilled jobs – a win, win scenario for the UK.”

The EPSRC UK-RAS Network is funded by The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) – Britain’s main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences. The Network’s mission is to provide academic leadership in Robotics and Autonomous Systems, expand collaboration with industry and integrate and coordinate activities at eight EPSRC-funded RAS dedicated facilities and Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs) across the country.

The founding network members are Imperial College London, Bristol Robotics Lab, University of Edinburgh, Heriot-Watt University, University of Leeds, University of Liverpool, Loughborough University, University of Oxford, University of Sheffield, University of Southampton, University College London, and University of Warwick.

Professor Guang-Zhong Yang PhD, FREng, Director and Co-founder of the Hamlyn Centre for Robotic Surgery at Imperial College London and Chair of the UK-RAS Network commented: “Robotics and Autonomous Systems are set to play an increasingly vital role in the growth of the UK economy across all sectors of industry, from transport and healthcare to manufacturing and unmanned systems. This dedicated network provides a focus for the UK’s research and engineering excellence for the first time, ensuring that the UK can maintain its competitive edge in RAS innovation.”

Kedar Pandya, Head of the Engineering Theme for the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, added: “Working with Innovate UK and other research council partners, EPSRC’s mission is to support and invest in the world-leading research base that has earned the UK its deserved reputation for research excellence. Robotics and Autonomous Systems are one of the Eight Great Technologies in which the UK is set to be a global leader, and the technology being developed at these EPSRC-funded RAS facilities will deliver a significant impact on the research landscape, and attract the kind of industrial investment that will maximise the UK’s stake in the worldwide robotics market.”

The Network will organise a wide range of activities including network and strategic roadmap events such as the UK Robotics conference, symposia and focused workshops, public engagement and exhibitions. It will also have extensive online engagement activities using social media and web and user forums. The Network aims to strengthen the relationship with industry by supporting interdisciplinary mobility and industrial secondment and developing proof-of-concept (PoC) projects and running design challenges. There is also a strong emphasis on government policy and high-level engagement with international stakeholders.


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