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The future of automation technology

As the parent of teenage boys Stuart Harvey is inclined to classify Playstations and Xboxes as the scourge of a generation. But as the forward- think managing director of Softstart UK, he sees them as technologies that could transform industrial automation.


Automation technology has been on a bit of a development plateau for some time, with most recent developments being little more than refinements to existing concepts. But there is a host of massive developments just around the corner which will address many issues that currently seem intractable.

And, interestingly, a lot of them are already freely available in the consumer markets! These mass markets are of such high volume that they support enormous development budgets and very rapid development cycles. Where they lead industrial technology may follow.

Automation is truly fantastic in many sectors, such as discrete parts assemble and metal cutting where components are all exactly the same size and movements tend to be straight line, circular or other mathematical curve. It is equally good in the process industries where the key parameters are weight, flow rate, temperature and time.

But there are other industries where automation is still in its infancy. The East Anglian food processors, for instance are still heavily reliant on skilled and semi-skilled manual labour. Handling items such as carrots and sugar beets is difficult because of their size and shape variations. Filleting a chicken or butchering a side of pork requires three dimensional cutting that adapts on the fly to address constant variations in sinew, bone, size, shape, resistance, etc.

Currently such processing plants rely heavily on human operators, but this leaves them open to being undercut by competitors with low-paid labour forces. This has lead to increasing reliance on food imported from Central Europe or flown in from Africa and India, and to growing problems with unregulated itinerant labour forces in the UK.

Bladerunner
The solution relies on developing food processing machinery that can mimic a person's deftness of touch and speed of information processing. The fanciful among us may start to think about Will Smith in I Robot and Bladerunner with Harrison Ford and say such developments are generations away. But an engineer with an analytical mind will look to existing technologies for partial solutions and see if they can be knitted together.

Five years ago probably nobody had a three dimensional TV in their home. Today they are not that uncommon and we all know that by this time next year prices will be dropping markedly. There will be a purchasing surge for the World Cup in 2014, after which prices will plummet to commodity levels and we'll all be moving on to the next big thing.

Combine 3DTV with industrial vision systems and we are more than half way to developing a robot arm that can remove a perfect chicken breast fillet or optimise the number of rashers cut from a side of bacon.

Add to this the special sensing technology of a Wii hand set. The software that currently processes the Wii motion data and outputs it as a game of tennis or a battle against Intergalactic Clone Overlords can easily be reengineered to provide outputs more in line with industrial scale food processing. Today's top of the range servodrives are capable of executing such movements, if the software can generate the real-time motion instructions.

Back to the future
If critical operations like filleting are to be cracked, so too must much more mundane matters like handling individual products that are irregularly sized and shaped, such as chops, drumsticks, fruit, vegetables and salad. The answer here probably lies in combining low tech with high tech.

Pneumatics in the form of suction cups has been used for decades to handle apples and other essentially round, hard fruit and vegetable. It does not take a huge leap of imagination to adapt this technology for other items that are less regular in shape and/or more delicate. This can be combined with machine vision and high speed data processing to provide handling solutions that should be effectively as good as that of a human operator.

Local hero
The giant supermarket chains have done a sterling job of keeping food prices down (and thereby squeezing inflation out of the economy) for 20 years or more. But this has been achieves at the cost of not increasing the prices they pay to their suppliers - who have therefore had to continually cut their costs and become more efficient. But this is a balancing act and eventually the suppliers will no longer be able to meet the supermarkets' price demands, thus allowing imports to flow in from cheap labour economies. This drives domestic  food producers and processes out of business, which of course destabilises the economy....

The resolution of this dilemma is of course automation. It is not something that is desirable, it is simply vital if we are to maintain a viable economy for our children to inherit, and in turn to pass on to their children.

If this combining of technology seems too far-fetched to you, look at the size of your smart phone, feel its weight and remind yourself of all its functions. Then think back to the equivalent technology when David Beckham or Gary Lineker were playing in the World Cup.

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