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From the editor's desk: How predictions change

June 2023 News


Kim Roberts, Deputy Editor.

It’s so good to see that trade exhibitions are back in full swing again all over the world after the many years of uncertainty. Apart from the socialisation and networking that everyone has been missing, they give you a platform to launch your new products, and they keep you up to date with the latest trends and innovations and best practices. While talking about pushing the boundaries, we have a lovely positive story about some youngsters aged 13 to 16 whose team, Texpand won first place at the FIRST World Robotics Championships. The award was for removing engineering obstacles through creative and scientific thinking. SAIMC Durban has made a contribution to Texpand and is challenging other SAIMC branches to do the same. After reading their inspiring story (http://www.instrumentation.co.za/19615r), and their contribution to teaching robotics to other kids, maybe some of our other corporate SAIMC members could do the same; it would be a great contribution to STEM in this country.

One of the trends arising out of the highly successful Africa Automation Technology Fair, and the prestigious international events like the International Fluid Power Expo and Germany’s Hanover Messe, is the issue of safety. Test and measurement is one of SA Instrumentation & Control’s key focus areas, and one company that stands out here is TÜV Rheinland, which provides testing, inspection and certification services across a huge range of industries. With this very broad exposure, it has a unique perspective of the automation market. In the field of robotics it can do safety testing of industrial robots and cobots, certification of robotic systems and components, and evaluation of cybersecurity risks in robotics systems. “The challenges of the pandemic emphasised how necessary robotics technology is in addressing the needs of our world,” said Ryan Braman, who is US director, and a recognised robotics safety expert.

Not very long ago TÜV released its top three predictions for the robotics industry, saying that they reflected changes in consumer and manufacturing trends brought about by the pandemic. It struck me that these were nothing compared to where we are today, only a few months later. It’s already happening. These were the predictions.

Firstly there will be more automation in the supply chain. TÜV said that shortages early in the pandemic made it clear that many supply chains could not handle a large and sudden increase in demand. This was made worse by the resulting labour shortage. As a result, manufacturers will increasingly invest in both traditional and collaborative robotics technologies. While many production lines are already fairly automated, companies will improve efficiency at all stages of the production line, from handling raw materials at the start to warehousing at the end. I can think of an immediate example – Omron’s range of cobots, which we have covered a number of times.

Secondly, robots will increasingly be used for order and delivery fulfilment. Consumer demand for delivery services and convenient onsite pickup are making retailers invest in warehousing and order fulfillment automation technology. According to TÜV this means there will be increasing demand for fleets of mobile robots and large-scale robotic order fulfillment machines. Mobile robots will soon be driving down the pavement to deliver the item you ordered hours before. That would be fun to have a robot knock on your door with your Takealot order.

Thirdly, sensing and communications technology will become even more important. TÜV expected that there would be increased investment in Lidar, camera, radar and other sensing equipment as a result of new automation capex. These technologies would improve robot capability and efficiency. TÜV also said that robotics industry standards such as UL 3300, UL 3100, ISO 10218-1 and ISO 10218-2 are now undergoing significant revisions, and are likely to be updated soon.

At that time TÜV didn’t even mention advancements in AI and machine learning, the increased use of drones, and the focus on sustainability and energy efficiency, all areas where it is now involved. Eighteen months later we find ourselves in a new era of AI. I loved the story about a team of programmers who have fitted Boston Dynamics’ robot dog, Spot with ChatGPT and text-to-speech modulation. I watched a viral video showing it answering enquiries about its automated missions in real-time after capturing vast amounts of data. The researchers ask a question using the context of the mission. ChatGPT interprets the question, summarises all the files, and formulates the answer. The voice-enabled interface allows it to respond verbally, and even follow instructions. A quick search will get you to the video.

I think I’m going to fasten my seatbelt.


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