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The new wave of cobotics—robots that can safely work alongside humans—offers tremendous possibilities for industry. And with artificial intelligence (AI), smart robotics is changing the game. Thanks to new cognitive capabilities, robots can perform more than just repetitive tasks. DirectIndustry e-magazine interviewed Raun Kilgo, Director of the Robotic Process Automation division at technology research firm ISG.
DirectIndustry e-magazine: How would you define AI in robotics?
Raun Kilgo: Your workforce is human intelligence, in contrast to AI. When you give workers a framework or guidelines, they’ll spot patterns and understand how to complete tasks. Artificial intelligence is the ability of a far simpler machine than the human brain to exhibit the same level of pattern recognition, propose solutions and direct outcomes without human intervention.
DirectIndustry e-magazine: What kinds of robots can use AI?
Raun Kilgo: Industrial and mechanical robots, definitely! A robot making a car must be able to identify an inferior piece of steel intended for the hood. This requires inspection and heuristic activity to ensure that what it’s being asked to do is possible given the input. Information bots have to do the same thing when trying to understand the variability of human speech patterns and what people are asking for.
The real question is how to make sure humans are not supplanted by robots!
DirectIndustry e-magazine: How do you make sure robots can operate safely in factories alongside humans?
Raun Kilgo: The real question is how to make sure humans are not supplanted by robots! If mechanical robots become powerful enough to manufacture things independently, we must discuss the rules governing bot operations. Keep in mind that information bots can do as much good and as much harm as assembly line bots. If a bot sees something suspicious concerning my credit card while I am traveling abroad and blocks it without warning, I could be stranded. That’s why it’s crucial to establish additional controls so that AI systems don’t rely on just one or two data sets to make decisions. Maybe you need a human at the end of the line to make the decision, especially if the consequences could be serious for an individual. We need to keep a human involved in the decision making process.
DirectIndustry e-magazine: Who are the major players in AI and why are they getting involved?
Raun Kilgo: Microsoft, Google and Amazon. But also robotic process automation people. Many heavy manufacturers are investing in AI. Everyone needs to enhance their decision making process without adding significant workforce overhead. They all want to make better decisions for their company and their customers, or optimize manufacturing efficiency.
DirectIndustry e-magazine:What do you think about Microsoft’s AI chatbot, Tay, which turned into an extremist after a couple of days on the web?
Raun Kilgo: Microsoft thought the bot would find good food. But people were malicious. Many feel threatened by bots and react negatively. They will do what they can to destabilize them. When we implement AI, the worst thing we can do is leave it alone. The best thing is to manage it, control it, understand it.
DirectIndustry e-magazine: Does that mean we need to redefine Asimov’s Laws of Robotics?
Raun Kilgo: Those laws are really simplistic and outdated because there’s no distinction between hardware and software. We definitely need new rules. This is what’s happening with self-driving cars. New concepts of governance need to be put in place to tell bots when to shut down rather than risk damage. AI is going to be a tremendous benefit for us. We’re going to have fewer workers, but they’ll be highly skilled. We need to maintain human involvement. It’s a slow invasion, but we’re already tied to it.
Ultrasonic machining—causing the cutting head of a machine tool to oscillate as well as rotate—is not new. It dates back to the middle of the last century and originally involved the use of an abrasive slurry in combination with the movement of the tool. Now, though, it is far more likely to resemble conventional machining utilizing normal cutting fluid.
One of the major suppliers of ultrasonic machining equipment is the German-Japanese company DMG Mori. According to UK sales manager Kevin Jones, the firm now has an installed base of around 700 ultrasonically-enabled machines worldwide. Jones concludes that the technology is “not emerging” but is instead “mature and established.” Its defining feature is the “generation of a vibration frequency at the cutting edge of the tool in the range 20-50 kHz.” This is achieved by electrical excitation of piezo elements in the toolholder via an induction coil in the spindle. They vibrate in the range of 2-12 microns with no vibration in the spindle.
The technology is not emerging but is instead mature and established.
The technique is particularly useful for machining difficult materials, such as glass, ceramics or carbon fiber. Jones adds that it also offers advantages when machining magnesium, titanium and similar metals. The most immediate benefit is longer tool life. He cites the example of a DMG customer drilling a 1.3 mm diameter hole to 23 times that depth in magnesium. Conventional techniques resulted in “just one or two holes per tool.” This figure jumped to 15 when an ultrasonic approach was adopted. Another example is grinding a silicon nitride workpiece to serve as an airborne camera housing. The process yields surface roughness of less than two microns with minimal tool chipping.
Conventional techniques resulted in just one or two holes per tool. This figure jumped to 15 when an ultrasonic approach was adopted.
Another user of ultrasonic machining is the UK’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in Sheffield. The organization has operated a DMG ULTRASONIC 10 rotary ultrasonic machine for the past three years. With this system, abrasion is effected solely by the tool. Grinding technology leader Jim Kelsey says the machine is used extensively for point grinding advanced ceramics, particularly for aerospace applications. To date, results have been good and represent a “baseline” against which alternative approaches can be evaluated.
Kelsey explains that the advantage lies in the “reduction in forces. It enables the use of small-diameter tools—5 mm or less—on hard, brittle materials. While the rate of rotation may reach 40,000 rpm, the actual “surface speed” of the tool against the workpiece will be relatively low. This extends tool life and enhances accuracy by minimizing tool deflection. In summary, Kelsey adds,
As materials get more difficult to machine, we need something to enable us to point grind efficiently, The ultrasonic approach enables us to do this.
Amid the Brexit confusion, technology is not often mentioned but isn’t necessarily forgotten. Some high-profile tech companies have hinted they might leave the UK. But others think the change could bring huge benefits in terms of growth and advances in technology.
One company that does not see Brexit as a real threat is IBM, which is investing heavily in UK operations. With client demand for cloud access spiraling, the company has tripled its cloud data center capacity.
Phil Hussey is IBM’s Brexit business development leader for the UK and Ireland. He says IBM has been preparing diligently for Brexit. A key issue is ensuring the free flow of data between the UK and Europe. Asked if the Brexit could be a major hindrance to technology advance, Mr. Hussey said:
IBM’s investment reflects the strength of the UK economy and the size of the opportunity in cloud computing. UK customers understand the capabilities of the cloud to drive innovation, to provide better insight for decision making and to deliver better customer service. IBM is well positioned for any post-Brexit scenario, with 16 data centers located across Europe to serve the needs of our clients.
However, Hussey said IBM is not speculating about possible Brexit-driven impacts on technology pricing should trade tariffs be imposed on the UK. He went on to explain how IBM is lining up to protect itself from Brexit.
IBM is preparing for Brexit, and has a new Brexit Transformation Lab in London which offers clients ‘trigger for transformation’ consulting workshops, initially focusing on financial services.
One of the major issues in the Brexit vote was immigration. We asked Hussey if IBM expects a tech drain once Brexit is implemented.
The key to stopping a tech drain is based around three essentials: ensuring the free flow of data between the UK and the EU, ensuring investment in domestic innovation and research, and the need to work on an agreement to provide adequate protection for personal data in the UK.
Camille Rustici is a Video Journalist and the Editor-in-Chief for DirectIndustry e-magazine. She has years of experience in business issues for various media including France 24, Associated Press, Radio France…
Chris O’Brien is based in France and is European Correspondent for VentureBeat and a freelance writer. Before moving to France, he spent 15 years in Silicon Valley covering technology for the San Jose Mercury News and the Los Angeles Times.