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Intelligent robots: should we be scared?

As increasingly sophisticated levels of automation are utilized in manufacturing plants, do we need to fear the intelligence behind these robotic workforces?

Mark Proctor, European Automation

 

In 1942 science fiction writer, Isaac Asimov bestowed upon the world The Three Laws of Robotics in his collection of short stories I, Robot. This was the basis for a reasonably successful film by the same name that you might have seen.

Without the comforting knowledge of the three laws, the idea of sentient machines would undoubtedly keep many of us up all night. Instead however, safe in the knowledge that, thanks to the first law, a robot may not harm a human being, the dawn of the smart factory can be greeted with open arms instead of terrified screams.

In the 1980s, American carmakers feared they might be completely wiped out by cheaper and more efficient Japanese competitors. This led to car manufacturers in Motor City, Detroit, envisioning an illustrious solution to beat their rivals – ‘lights-out’ manufacturing. The vision was of a factory that could ultimately run on its own with minimal human interaction. They would turn the lights out in the factory and leave robots to do all the work unsupervised.

This hasn't quite been the case with the manufacturing industry until fairly recently. Technological advances and the Internet of Things have resulted in interconnected devices forming a convergence point between the physical and digital world. The more information stored in a system, the better-positioned machines are to make smarter and timelier decisions about things normally left to human judgment.

Most factories now use processes such as laser cutting and injection molding that operate with minimal human interaction. Additive manufacturing machines can be left alone to print day and night once they have been designated a task. And fear not, my human brethren, as we all know a robot must obey the orders given to them by human beings – it’s the second law of robotics.

These processes benefit manufacturers by minimizing defects and downtime, therefore boosting efficiency.

The Siemens Electronic Works facility in Amberg, Germany, is a plant that we would probably fear if we weren't so impressed by it. The 108,000ft² high-tech facility is home to an array of smart machines that coordinate everything from the production of the company’s products to the global distribution.

The custom, built-to-order process involves more than 1.6 billion components for over 50,000 annual product variations, for which Siemens sources about 10,000 materials from 250 suppliers to make the plant’s 950 different products.

Despite the endless variables within this system, a Gartner industry research study conducted in 2010 found that the plant boasts a reliability rate of more than 99%, with only 15 defects in every million.

You can therefore see the importance of keeping such an efficient automation process up and running. Asimov's third law – a robot must protect its own existence.

However, when this goes wrong and production breaks down, it's comforting to know that European Automation can send key parts such as drives, motors, Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs) and Human Machine Interfaces (HMIs) out in as little as nine hours, to quash any robotic uprising.

 

1 October 2014

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