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Seeing into the future

Seeing into the future Dr Peter Post, head of corporate research and programme strategy at Festo, discusses the concept of open innovation and looks at how manufacturing will change in the future.

A great deal has changed in the research and development field, when I started, researchers used to work in secrecy and isolation  concentrating on product-related issues and then setting about finding solutions on the basis of physical and mathematical know-how. Nowadays the focus is on applications to a much greater extent and today's research activities are characterised by a more open, collaborative approach.

Today the focus is on 'open innovation' which includes the customer, academics, research networks and suppliers. This provides a variety of viewpoints so that we can then devise market-specific and market ready solutions. A good example of open innovation is the EMC_ project (www.emc2-factory.eu) in cooperation with Fiat, Siemens, Comau and selected universities which is looking at key parameters for resource and energy efficiency in factories and how it can be most rapidly implemented.

But, even when you have this open approach to research and development it still needs to be steered in the right direction and this is where, for Festo, Future Radar and Future Scanning come in. Future Scanning identifies trends and selects those which have highest relevance for Festo. The Future Radar function, on the other hand, analyses trends which do not as yet have concrete relevance to the market or to Festo.

We have two ways of spotting 'trends'. We conduct major scenario projects which cover Festo's entire environment and examine possible future events. Secondly, we regularly scan the market for new trends. Future Radar is a process for deriving long-term scenarios from the most important trends and formulating the consequences. We want to know what trends will be influencing our sphere of activity in ten to twenty years time. We can then develop alternative courses of action, just as we are generating solutions today that set about addressing these issues.

For example, a fundamental issue is the question of what role the human will play in the production world of the future. And, what will the consequences be for human/technology interaction? What are the issues we need to solve today, for example in the field of service robotics, in order to make human machine cooperation at all possible? One of the questions which we are currently working on is how to make automation technology more accessible, particularly in those areas where the standard of education is still developing. Take the iPhone, this is a perfect example of how something that is very complex to manufacture can be made easy to use. The challenge is to develop automation technology so that it is simple to specify, install and use.

We want to break down the barriers between humans and machine control. This is a vision and something we are working towards and we have taken the first steps for example with our electric drive configuration tool. If you look at how the IT world has progressed there are many parallels for automation. Ten years ago when you wanted to install a printer it was a complex task involving the installation of software and all sorts of parameter changes. These days the devices 'find' each other and all the configuration takes place automatically. Today, industrial automation is not quite as simple as that but it's the sort of simplicity of use we are looking for. I envisage the future of production like this: the components of production lines will be mutually integrated and connect with each other intelligently, configure themselves with a minimum of effort and cater to the various requirements of production, wear and even failures in a self-monitoring way. This gives us maximum flexibility.

For the production of the future, 'decentralised intelligence' means that tasks that are currently managed by a centralised, host computer will be largely assumed by the individual components in future. All measures that need to be carried out to manage the order for a certain component could then be executed in a small local control loop within the component itself. This decentralised system then only has to communicate "I'm done" once it has finished. Take a yogurt cup, as a very simple example, as it enters the filling station. The station receives a request for a certain fill, it requests a cup of the right size and orders the appropriate amount of yoghurt from the mixing station, and it is filled. The station then controls the level, shuts off the filling process, and says to the next station, "The yoghurt cup is full - please assume control and attach the lid." This process takes place without intervention by a superior controller. Pull-through, decentralised automation has even greater benefits in more complex, high-variation production processes.

We should consider manufacturing of the future as a socio-economic system. The human operator and the technology will move ever closer together. The technology is becoming more intelligent and adaptive, and is increasingly able to immediately adapt to changing conditions and to human intervention. Not all processes will be fully automated; particularly those requiring creativity, dexterity and subject to constant modification. This calls for human input with direct communication with the technology by means of interfaces such as gesture recognition, speech commands, or even thought control for some steps in the industrial process. To achieve this, the technology must understand the human and the human must understand the technology - in an intuitive way.

To conclude, future production and working environments must also offer solutions to societal challenges, such as demographic change and the resulting rise in the average age of the workforce. There are a number of tools in development that support humans in physical installation work; they reduce the physical burden on the human operator, for example, and simplify sequences of movement. This interaction allows the human operator higher productivity, while at the same time maintaining and extending his or her scope of action. It is the coming together of all these elements that I have mentioned in this article which will help us address the challenges of the future.
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