The Leading Edge: Technologies to Watch in 2010

Dec. 1, 2009
Devices are growing smaller, smarter and more connected as globalization takes root.

When held in your hands, a sheet of buckypaper seems unimpressive, with its thin and flimsy texture more closely resembling a piece of carbon paper than a breakthrough material. But don't be fooled. This seemingly modest sheet of paper — made from tube-shaped carbon molecules 50,000 times thinner than a human hair — when stacked, nets a material that's 500 times stronger than steel, yet 10 times lighter.

Buckypaper's strength is only equaled by its unique properties. Unlike conventional composite materials, it conducts electricity similar to copper or silicon, yet disperses heat like steel or brass. As a material, buckypaper holds the promise of changing the way airplanes, automobiles and electronics are made.

Such breakthroughs hold the capacity to touch every aspect of our lives. Manufacturing has undergone startling changes over the last 20 years, including radical advances in materials, controls, communications, electronics and software. These developments reduce the incidence of human error, allow for the accumulation and study of performance data, create the possibility for instant contact with customers and establish flexibility in operations in ways that only a few visionaries might have imagined.

Today, innovation is being driven by a world suddenly grown smaller, where the ability to access and influence technology is available to a wider range of individuals, spread across a growing number of industrializing nations. According to Cliff Waldman, an economist with the Manufacturers Alliance/MAPI, who co-authored a paper on innovation in the manufacturing sector, globalization is the single biggest driver of innovation today.

“We have seen more and more countries — large, potentially powerful developing markets — joining the global trading system, becoming both competitors and potential collaborators for us,” says Waldman. “The challenges that these new emerging markets present should be clear drivers of innovation. We need to differentiate our products and processes, get more efficient and get more interesting to the rest of the world. In short, we need to be out there competing.”

Smarter Sensors

Technology isn't just reaching a wider audience of users; it's also getting smarter, especially on the plant floor. According to Sujeet Chand, senior vice president for advanced technology and chief technology officer for Rockwell Automation, a smarter device implies technology with a capacity for processing and communications. With processing capability, he says, intelligence can be embedded.

Sensing technologies are evolving at a rapid rate, allowing for the possibility of sensing at the device level. Today, for example, manufacturing facilities and distribution centers use motor protection devices, such as circuit breakers, which sit on the power line to monitor a spike in current or power source. But, soon, with a little more intelligence in sensing, a device could sense power consumption and quality, monitoring and recording any changes in status, becoming not only a tool for control but also for feedback.

“You may have, in the future, nano-sensors that, for example, you would embed in the grease inside an electric motor,” says Chand. “The nano-sensor would sense the properties, such as metal particles, and indicate if there may be potential for breakdown in the insulation.”

New research at the Georgia Institute of Technology could soon make predicting the degradation and remaining useful life of mechanical and electronic equipment easier and more accurate.

Nagi Gebraeel, an assistant professor at Georgia Tech's H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering, has developed models that use data from real-time sensor measurements to calculate and continuously revise the amount of useful life remaining for different engineering systems based on their current condition and health status. These predictions are then integrated with maintenance management and spare-parts supply chain policies as part of an autonomous, sense-and-respond logistics network.

Threading the Lines

Whether the problem is fire, power outage or equipment breakdown, one of the toughest challenges for large companies is directing vital information to the correct individual as quickly as possible.

One rapidly advancing technology is the concept of unified communications (UC), which embeds multiple forms of communications into the flow of everyday business activities — from office to facility floor — and develops applications that automatically send relevant data directly to phones or software on PCs.

If, for example, there were an alarm when no one was in the facility, a UC system would figure out to whom it should send the alarm notification, being able to determine his or her availability instantly, and using whatever communications channel the staffer picks. The system could send a text message to that individual or embed a video of the equipment just before it failed.

Automaker BMW uses UC systems extensively in project development, linking members of its research laboratories, design centers and manufacturing sites. UC is also being applied to its supply chains, enabling smoother operations, while increasing visibility and response.

“This is an extremely exciting technology in communications,” says Rockwell Automation's Chand. “What it does is enable us to automate how we transmit information.”

Justifying the Leap

When Procter & Gamble considers implementing new technologies, there had better be a convincing reason.

According to Jon McLaughlin, who serves as section head for upstream technology development at Procter & Gamble, the focus is largely on processing at higher speeds with fewer errors and as cost effectively as possible.

To produce products, such as diapers, dish soap and eyeliner, faster and with greater accuracy, McLaughlin closely watches the development of high-torque and low-weight actuators with tighter performance control.

Actuators, used frequently throughout industrial facilities, require large footprints and connections to heavy hydraulic and pneumatic lines. That may be about to change, as electric motors have begun to close the gap on hydraulic actuators, opening new possibilities in manufacturing and distribution.

“Once they get more efficient and cheaper, you can see electric motors replace those other types of motors in all sorts of systems, such as conveyors, pick-and-place robots and doors that open and shut,” says Sam Tolkoff, director of platform systems for technology developer QinetiQ. “What that enables is smaller systems that don't have to rely on hydraulics and pneumatics to do what you want. If all you have to do is plug it in, that starts to get a whole lot of people's attention.”

Forecast: Partly Cloudy

While the Internet and network-connected devices are anything but novel, the ability to snatch data anywhere off the Web — so-called cloud computing — has started to catch on with consumers and businesses in a more meaningful way. Does it hold a future in industrial automation? That depends on who you ask.

Cloud computing, in short, enables a company to tap into raw computing power, storage, software applications and data from massive data centers over the Internet. Customers pay only for the computing resources they need, when they need them. Using the cloud allows businesses to avoid building their own data centers and buying servers and disks.

“You suddenly have companies that are offering software services in manufacturing,” says Ian Finley, an analyst for AMR Research. “Companies like Plex Systems offer a set of different tools that might focus on inventory and financials, ones for supply chain management or ones for manufacturing that delve into quality management, production scheduling and shop-floor control.”

The problem is time or, more specifically, how reliable cloud computing software can be to process data as it happens. In industrial automation, where every piece of data needs to be read and processed in real time, a millisecond's delay might miss, say, a sensor sending signals of a surge in power.

“In the factory or plant, you may use software as a service (SaaS), and it can help you come up with the best schedule for running your facility tomorrow,” says Rockwell Automation's Chand. “But, I don't see how you'd use cloud computing for real-time operations in the factory. I don't have a guarantee on the availability and performance of that software application.”

The Right Questions

Wires seem to be disappearing at an alarming rate these days. Phones have shed their wires and turned into multi-function devices, as tools for communications have grown more sophisticated. Computers have turned into laptops that hook online via WiFi. Security systems for homes and facilities have unplugged. Now, there is the promise of wireless energy transfer before our eyes.

All of these developments signify the rising demand for wireless technology in manufacturing and distribution settings. But wireless capabilities, like many other emerging technologies, are new tools, nothing more.

“We've got so many technologies that are available and are evolving and improving,” says Mike Yost, global markets development leader for GE Fanuc Intelligent Platforms' operations management software business. “Any technology is only as important as the problem it's solving, and I don't want to enhance anything until I've determined what the problem is.”

Technology has a knack for sometimes confusing its own users. Half of all electronic devices are returned to retail stores after one week because users can't figure them out. The same holds true with more complex technologies, says Kevin Craig, professor of mechanical engineering at Marquette University.

“Technology has to be desirable, but from a business aspect, it has to be sustainable and maintainable,” says Craig. “Most of all, it has to be usable.”

Peter Alpern is associate editor of MHM's sister publication, IndustryWeek.

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