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At Smart Manufacturing Experience, Focus Is on Speed, Action, Preparedness

Brett Brune
By Brett Brune Editor in Chief, Smart Manufacturing
Dennis Kulakowski, the leader of advanced manufacturing at Hypertherm, tests PTC’s ThingWorx IIoT software, wearing smart glasses. (Photo by Brett Brune)

BOSTON—Georgia Tech students in Tom Kurfess’ classes used to quake when he said, “Oh, how hard it would be?” he said last week at the Smart Manufacturing Experience show here. “Because that would basically ruin the next month of their lives” as they experimented on what he wondered about, he said. “Now, when I say, “How hard would it be?’ they come back in a few hours and say, ‘Here you go!’”

Now that the manufacturing world has Bluetooth technology, wireless communication from machine to machine and predictive maintenance and the like, change will come at “the speed of thought,” he said, speaking on a conference panel addressing the “journey to innovation.”

Smart Manufacturing Experience 2018, produced by SME and AMT—The Association for Manufacturing Technology, was held April 30 to May 2 at the Boston Convention Center. More than 2000 industry professionals attend the trade show and conference, which focused on the latest advanced manufacturing technologies.

Lonnie Love, leader of the manufacturing systems research group at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, agreed that young people now accept innovation invitations with alacrity.

Look around and you will see that “society is changing very rapidly,” he said during the panel discussion. “The largest cab company doesn’t own a cab: Uber. The largest hotel chain doesn’t own a bed (Airbnb). Things are changing, and it happens in a matter of years instead of decades now.”

To help with workforce development that will speed the arrival of “truly intelligent” machines, manufacturers can, for starters, back First Robotics teams, which are always looking for sponsors and mentors, Love said. “I like the grassroots approach. What really has to happen is more engagement from industry with the high schools.” (First Robotics is an international youth organization that operates the First Robotics Competition.)

The ROI can be substantial, he suggested.

Love served as a First Robotics mentor, and it became his “proving ground for interns”—some of whom are now on his full-time staff, he said. “You have to own it. … Look for things like First Robotics and Project Lead the Way [a nonprofit that develops STEM curricula for use by US elementary, middle, and high schools].

“As a company, you’ve got to invest in it,” he added. “You’ve got to go and spend time with these kids and financially support them. First Robotics is expensive. It’s not cheap to build a robot.”

Nothing less than the US dominating in world manufacturing is at stake, Love said. The goal of smart manufacturing is to “enable US manufacturers to be competitive. For the US, manufacturing is a baseline. It’s what creates wealth and opportunities.”

In the last 20 years, he said, the US traded speed and quality for cost. “Now we’re seeing emerging tools—new sensors, data analytics and artificial intelligence (AI), additive manufacturing and hybrid manufacturing—that will enable us to be more competitive.”

Action-oriented attendees

Memex CEO David McPhail said the show’s attendees were more action oriented than attendees of other smart manufacturing-related shows have been.

He presented at a Learning Lab inside the show and found the attendees were here “to look at a solution with a view to buying it or implementing it,” he said. He noted that previous speaking experiences of his, also focused on promoting his firms machine-efficiency software, had “more of an educational flair.”

“People are coming to this conference with a lot more education under their belt,” McPhail said. “They want a pragmatic way to implement data-driven manufacturing and a solution provider to help them along the path.”

That could be because “the adoption curve is starting to flatten out a bit,” he said. “We’ve been doing this for a decade, and it’s been a lonely place up until recently. We seem to have a lot of additional competitors, which educates the marketplace. And there’s a lot of additional information online about IoT and Industrie 4.0. Part of our presentation is to bring those strategies together under one common thread called ‘data-driven manufacturing’.”

In the Learning Lab McPhail led, he said, “There was a lot of inbound inquiry about data-driven manufacturing, and specifically how to monetize your shop-floor data. We had a good turnout, and the topic was timely. People were asking good questions about how to get started and about the ROI, which is the point I wanted to hit.”

Composites confab

Steve Swirsky of GKN Aerospace. (Photo by Brett Brune)

At one of the “knowledge bars” situated around the perimeter of the show, Steve Swirsky with GKN Aerospace (Cromwell, CT), spoke with James Bosmik of Problem Machine Solutions about troubleshooting a grinding process for carbon fiber-type parts.

GKN makes mostly engine parts, most of them from composites.

The conversation was very useful, he said, noting that it will figure into GKN’s exploration of new technologies.

The knowledge bar overall was a great experience, he added. “It’s been very useful to be able to directly interact with a lot of the vendors and speakers. I found it really valuable.”

Hands-on experimentation

Nearby, in the “mixed-reality experience” section of the conference, Dennis Kulakowski smiled uncontrollably as he tested PTC’s ThingWorx IIoT software, wearing smart glasses.

As the leader of advanced manufacturing at Hanover, NH-based Hypertherm, he appreciated the chance to add to his augmented reality (AR) experience.

“We were looking at smart glasses that will take an image of a machine and give you a virtual machine that has overlaid instructions, or diagnostics, as you were looking at the piece of equipment. They have a little set up of how it works,” that helps people understand what can be accomplished with small hand gestures, Kulakowski said.

Thinking out loud, he said, “So where could this be applied for what we are doing? Could it be used for a field service technician who can now relay [information to] their equipment engineer and the engineer can manipulate the glasses for the technician to be able to service the equipment? Could it be used for training? For assembly? So just coming up with different ‘brain-children’ from seeing the displays.”

Hypertherm, which makes plasma cutters used on thick steel, is not yet using AR technology mainstream, Kulakowski said. “We are dabbling in stuff all the time, but nothing on a regular basis.

“Augmented reality is in its infancy in terms of being applied to the industry,” he added. “When we find the right application for it, we will do it.”

Speed-focused future imagined

Later in the conference, technology futurist Jack Shaw spoke at length about AR, as well as AI.

Shaw took show attendees on a “trip to the near future” in which a sensor embedded in a passenger jet’s fuel nozzle detects an inordinate degree of wear while the plane is flying from Paris to Boston and notifies the maker that the fuel nozzle needs to be replaced for safety purposes.

“Now, as it happens, this is a particularly expensive part … that rarely needs replacement so it’s not kept in stock at Boston Logan Airport. Now back in 2018, they would have had to take the aircraft out of service for … probably a day or more to have the part flown in from the supplier or from another airport and do the replacement,” he said.

“But instead the built-in Internet of Things circuitry in the fuel nozzle communicates with the aircraft’s autonomous maintenance system. The aircraft’s AI-powered autonomous maintenance system sends a message to the airline’s global maintenance system that this part is needed on arrival at Boston Logan Airport. The global maintenance system sends a requisition to the airline’s global procurement system, and the procurement system launches an intelligent procurement agent onto the Internet, scouring thousands of websites to identify suppliers who are FAA certified to provide versions of this particular part for use with this engine on this aircraft.”

Long story short: A competitively priced part from a new-but-FAA-certified business partner for the airline is 3D printed at Boston Logan Airport and “waiting at the gate … two hours before the arrival of the aircraft,” Shaw said.

A technical operations procurement executive has already secured the services of a competitively priced, certified engineer with high quality scores working for an on-airport, third-party, outsourced technical engineering services firm, he added.

The maintenance engineer “dons a pair of augmented reality goggles which project a 3D image of a video of the entire replacement process directly onto the parts that she’s working on so she can turn the screws, rotate the pieces, and position them in place correctly.”

And when she is done, Shaw said, “the Internet of Things circuitry in the part automatically initiates a self-test of the communications of that part with the engine, and with the aircraft’s AI-enabled autonomous maintenance system,” and data showing the part has been successfully installed is updated in the aircraft’s autonomous maintenance system.

“These things are all coming,” he said.

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