INDUSTRY SPOTLIGHT: Robotics Drive the Factory of the Future

Each generation will define how it interprets the term Robotics. I happen to fall at the tail end of Gen X and grew up with an understanding that robotics were simply for automating mundane tasks and the most exciting and truly useful applications were closer to sci-fi than reality.

These days, the reality is that some of the most practical and exciting developments in robotics have and are taking place in manufacturing. Yes, these tools of the trade are used to automate mundane tasks, reduce labor costs, and accelerate throughput. What most people do not know is what is fueling these advancements. It is technology driven, more on the virtual/software side than on the mechanical. This is the grounding of internet of things (IoT).

Manufacturing is an extremely savvy business that focuses on metrics such as Return on Investment (ROI), Return on Investment Capital (ROIC), and relationships between top and bottom line growth like no other. Mix this focus on financial metrics with mechanical intuition and then layer on some technology and now you have the factory of the future.

Follow the digital thread at Proto Labs (click to enlarge).

IoT and factory of the future are built on the concept of the digital thread (see graphic above). It is the electronic path and communication medium that is the backbone of state-of-the-art facilities. Let’s begin with an example we are all familiar with. The garage door opener is an awesome tool—when it’s raining you don’t have to get out of the car to close the door. But if your kids leave after you do, you have to ask yourself if they shut the door. Thanks to IoT, I can now get on my smartphone and verify that they closed the door at 7:10 a.m., in time to catch the school bus.

Now let’s bring this to robotics in a factory. End-of-arm tooling supporting post-secondary operations in an injection molding cell may pick a part, pass it to a laser scanner for physical inspection, and then place it into a pad printing fixture. This operation is quite simple and had been around for years, but today you have the ability to track each activity remotely, receive feedback, and collect data on performance.

Many companies that are focusing their efforts on the technology side of these improvements to their factories are in need of more custom real parts than ever before. This technology is driving the need for unique parts that can be 3D printed or machined.  Proto Labs is a leader in digital manufacturing and a crucial supplier for unique parts to support this growing business sector.

See how digital manufacturing is changing the industry in our recent Journal cover story. Read here.

Security Device with GPS Tracking Wins Cool Idea! Award

Product designers at Sleeping Beauty, a German-based company developing an internet of things security device, are the latest recipients of the Proto Labs Cool Idea! Award.

After having his automobile stolen, Jakob Lipps, co-founder of Sleeping Beauty, went searching for a solution to make sure it never happens again. Unable to find a solution, Jakob and his co-founder began developing it on their own. This led to the creation of a compact security device now known as Sleeping Beauty.

Photo courtesy: Sleeping Beauty

Sleeping Beauty uses GSM and GPS technology to track the location of valuable possessions anywhere within cellular network coverage. Thanks to the “Prince Charming” processor (ARM Cortex M0+) inside Sleeping Beauty, the standby time is unprecedented. Sleeping Beauty will sleep undisturbed for up to one year and report its location and remaining battery life at regular intervals via the smartphone app. In Sleep Mode, “Prince Charming” needs only 270 nanoampere. If the device detects movement, it will wake up and send location data to its owner’s smartphone.

“In a market cluttered with complex gadgets, Sleeping Beauty is an elegant solution for a variety of common problems,” said Proto Labs founder Larry Lukis. “Its simple and intuitive design makes it well-suited to succeed in the consumer marketplace. We are excited to support them as they bring the device into production.”

HAVE AN INNOVATIVE PRODUCT DESIGN? APPLY FOR THE COOL IDEA! AWARD TODAY!

Automation, Data, Testing and Iteration Dominate IoT Fuse

The second annual IoT Fuse brought together the Minnesota tech community for a day full of everything technology. The sold out conference connected engineers, developers, 

entrepreneurs and technologists to share how Internet of Things (IoT) technology is changing businesses with hands-on workshops, panel discussions and case studies. Among more than 40 presentations, Proto Labs VP Rob Bodor, shared how digital manufacturing and automation is accelerating the development of IoT products.

The World is Not a Desktop
The day opened with a fitting keynote from Amber Case, a “cyborg anthropologist” and UX designer. She presented the idea of calm technologies ­— meaning technology that follows these principles:

  • Technology should require the smallest possible amount of attention
  • Technology should inform and calm
  • Technology should make use of the periphery
  • Technology should amplify the best of technology and the best of humanity
  • Technology can communicate, but doesn’t need to speak
  • Technology should work even when it fails
  • The right amount of technology is the minimum needed to solve the problem
  • Technology should respect social norms

Much of Case’s message centered on the idea that innovation is not synonymous with over-engineered devices. She described how just a minor change like adding a camera to our mobile phones can be revolutionary.

She also referenced the groundbreaking research from Xerox PARC innovation center during the 1970s and 80s where they created what is now know as the graphic interface. Her point being that you can innovate faster by understanding the previous work of others.

For more information on Amber Case’s work, visit calmtech.com.

Navigating Low-Fidelity and High-Fidelity Prototyping
Next, we heard from Eric Nyaribo, a design engineer at 3M automotive. He discussed strategies for prototyping and how engineers can use different types of prototyping to convey ideas and encourage interaction between team members.

He shared the concept of low-fidelity and high-fidelity prototyping and when one is more appropriate than the other.

A low-fidelity prototype is a rough concept or first iteration of an idea, it doesn’t have to be functional or pretty. Often a low-fidelity prototype is hacked together with spare parts.The main purpose of a low-fidelity prototype is to kick-off the product development process and inspire team members to share their ideas.

He defined a high-fidelity prototype as a product that is finalized with colors, design and is functional. As he said, “It’s that prototype you show to a customer and they want to keep it for themselves.”

One of Eric’s most valuable pieces of advice was that just because a prototype is closer to the final product doesn’t mean it’s the best kind of prototype for that point in the development cycle.

The value of a prototype isn’t in the model, it’s in the interactions, conversations and feedback they inspire. He also shared how prototyping helps reduce design risk since you can validate your design with small successes throughout the product development cycle. This helps gain support from key stakeholders and encourages the product team.

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The Internet of Things at Proto Labs and Beyond

The Internet of Things (IoT) — where essentially any device with an on/off switch can be connected online — has gone mainstream. It’s a technological movement aimed to connect everything and everyone, sharing data between humans and machines to make our lives and work more efficient. It is both an exciting and terrifying concept, but a natural progression as we become a more connected society. Continue reading