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From the editor's desk: New technology and the factory of the future

May 2015 News

At this year’s Hannover Messe, Festo delivered a futuristic display of imagination to show how innovation inspired by nature could make a difference to the way things might work in the production environments of tomorrow, the company’s BionicANT being a fascinating case in point. (ANT is actually an acronym for Autonomous Networking Technologies.)

For the BionicANT idea to work, Festo not only had to take the delicate anatomy of the natural ant as a model, but the cooperative behaviour of these creatures also had to be transferred to the real world using complex mathematical control algorithms.

The underlying principle is that of highly integrated individual systems working together to solve a common task. Like their living counterparts in nature, the BionicANTs work cooperatively under a clearly defined set of rules. They communicate wirelessly with each other to coordinate their actions in ways that allow each individual to contribute to the group objective of manipulating objects much larger than themselves, through the coordinated actions of pushing, pulling and lifting together. Another term for this is swarm intelligence. All actions are based on a distributed set of rules, worked out using advanced computer modelling, and then stored in the electronic brain of every ant. Since each individual contributes towards finding the solution through the ideas of distributed intelligence, the artificial ants demonstrate how autonomous individual components can solve a complex task working together as a cooperative networked system.

And it’s not only the willingness of these little bots to cooperate that amazes, the methods used to produce them are rather impressive as well. The laser-sintered components are embellished with visible conductor structures in what is known as a 3D MID (moulded interconnect device) process. An MID is a moulded plastic device that incorporates integrated electronic circuit traces. This latest generation production methodology allows the ants to take on their design anatomy and electrical functionality all at the same time, and using the same process.

They have a stereo camera in their heads, and their antennae function as battery-charging contacts when pressed against the powered rails that span the edge of their operating environment. With two rechargeable batteries embedded in their miniature artificial bodies, each ant can work for up to 40 minutes before it must rest with its feelers pressed against a charging rail for replenishment. In order for the ants to navigate in a controlled fashion, the camera system eyes are supplemented by an extra optical sensor on the underneath of the body. These are much the same as those found in a computer mouse, and allow the creatures to move around using infrared markings on the floor as orientation. For the quick reactions required in the legs and mandibles, the benefits of the latest piezo actuator technology are deployed, which allow the limbs and mouthpiece to be controlled precisely, using very little energy, and taking up a minimal amount of space.

By combining all the latest ideas of artificial intelligence, electronic circuit design and piezo actuator technology, and coupling them with state-of-the-art 3D printing production techniques, Festo has demonstrated how swarms of insect robots could someday complement the workforce in a modern production environment. And even if that never happens, Festo has given us a wonderful reminder of how perfect the design of evolution actually is. If you want to see the ideas in action, this short YouTube video clip is both entertaining and informative http://tinyurl.com/qftphm8

Africa Automation Fair

Speaking of technology and the factory of the future, Africa Automation Fair opens for business on 5 May at the Coca-Cola Dome in Randburg. According to organiser Hanli Kritzinger, since it was launched to vendors in September 2013, the idea has received the unbridled commitment, support and enthusiasm of everyone in the industry. The idea is to host a world class technology event dedicated to showcasing the latest in process control product development to professionals within the instrumentation and automation technology arenas – Africa’s equivalent of the Hannover Messe.

In addition, the event will also host the FIRST Robotics Africa Open Championships, welcoming some 750 youngsters from around the globe to participate in science and technology through the inspirational ideas behind Dean Kamen’s competition. SAIMC president, Vinesh Maharaj, describes it all in detail in his column this month – you’ll find it on page 20.

Diarise The Dome from 5-7 May – the inaugural Africa Automation Fair is an event not to be missed.

Steven Meyer

Editor: SA Instrumentation & Control

steven@technews.co.za



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