Following on from her previous article with us (in a similarly fantastical theme), Kilara Le continues to explore hot topic, the Internet of Things, here. In another look into a possible future, Kilara shows us how factory life could change through the IoT – with a robot for everything!
Riding on the coat tails of the previous article, where we visited supply chain wonderland, its IoTea time again and we have another delicious variety of subtly magical treats in store. Some of them you can buy at your local distributor and others you’ll have to mix up in your IT kitchen yourself, but I assure you that, in this day and age, you won’t have to do much digging to find the ingredients. So, grab a cuppa and a small cake (the ones that say “eat me”) and we’ll begin our journey into an IoT enabled factory of the future.
At the entrance, your face is recognized and another pops up on a screen in the wall to welcome you. A small opalescent badge drops into a container below the screen. “Put me on,” says the badge “hold me over your heart and let go when I tell you I’ve harmonized with your electromagnetic field.” Badge in place, the mirrored glass doors open. “Welcome” they say as the smell of lavender, mint, machine oil and a faint wisp of hot electrical wire rushes your nostrils.
Inside the building it is bright and clean and buzzing with happy mechanic noises, clicks, beeps, and smacks of air compression fill the air. As you look around the floor, it’s not quite clear what the common theme between the many colorful products on various pieces of machinery is. Hmm, you think to your traditional manufacturing focused self, “what are we making today?”
Everyone (machine and human) is busy – at least there is something in process at every station. However, the four humans in charge of the factory don’t seem particularly rushed; in fact, three have their noses buried in their paper-thin smartphones. That’s pretty normal, you suppose, but perhaps not in a busy factory. Yet you know this factory is profitable, even with a large upfront investment, because you are thinking of investing in one yourself. “Customized in 24 – shipped directly to your door,” chirps your badge. “Excuse me?” you say, questioningly. “Customers upload their prints or patterns, or sometimes even just a sketch, and we make them and ship them out in 24 hours or less,” it adds with a robotic giggle.
You wait at the thick yellow line where your badge has instructed you to stand and a cart rumbles down an aisle full of what appears to be a random assortment of items. Visible are: piece goods, folded finished products, a basket of parts, and half finished items. “Pardon me,” says the cart as it turns down an aisle and stops at a sewing machine. A small robot unfolds itself from under the cart and holds up its ‘hand’ with an assortment of attachments and picks a new part out of the basket. It’s been advised by the machine that one of its parts is ‘on its last legs’, as it were.
It removes a part from the sewing machine and replaces it with a new one, presses a button and the sewing commences. The robot three-dimensionally scans the old part with its ‘eyes’ and checks against the specs of the original part , cross referencing other applicable uses. “Robbit determines whether it is repairable, still useful, or not. If it is, it goes in the machine shop basket, and if it is not, into the recycle one,” your badge tells you matter-of-factly.
The badge continues, “I’ve asked Lewis to come over and give you a human led tour; I know how much humans like speaking to their fellow forms”, adding, “I detected that your moisture level has dropped so I’ve ordered you a cup of tea. Here it is coming now.” A short and stout IoTea bot rolls over, steaming cup in hand, and asks “milk and sugar, Luv?” “Both” you answer gratefully, relishing the familiarity of the exchange and the steaming beverage. “If you’ll excuse me”, it says, “I’m needed at the inkjet fabric printer to unclog the print heads again. And then I’ve some fabric to steam set”, she adds, emitting a long puff of steam and then a short one to make an exclamation mark.
Some things never change, you think to yourself as Lewis walks up.
“Hullo”, he says, shaking your hand, “Nice to meet you”. “You as well”, you answer politely, “thanks for letting me visit, I feel as if I’m in another world.”
“Yes”, he chuckles, “It’s a bit strange at first, I’m sure, but you’ll soon get used to it. By the way, I see you’ve a cup of tea, so I’ll order us some snacks as well. By the time we walk over to the fabric printers, they’ll have something tasty 3D printed.” “Who”, you ask. “Oh, Julia and Emeril, our 3D food printer bots. They are quite creative,” Lewis adds leading the way to the printers.
As you arrive, another robot is loading a roll of fabric onto the feed rollers of a large printer. Beside it is an equally large roll of transfer paper. Your snack rolls up on a self-directed cart: 3D printed cakes with eat me written on them in multicolored icing. “Not bad” you say, “carrot, walnut and something else…?” Lewis takes a small bite and confirms, “ginger, cardamom and orange peel.”
“Sublimation?” you ask. “Yep”, he replies, “Prints right onto the transfer paper here at the top and then gets set onto the paper. We embed the sewing instructions into the pieces in the seam allowance, and route it along the way. That was super-easy to do; we just take it from the 3D CAD file or the PLM file. Of course, on this print/cut line we also print a black border so the cutter can detect the pieces optically and cut them without an official marker.” He pauses, “Over here we have a gas transfer printer that we are testing out, and we have a bot running it through its paces to figure out it’s preferences. We also have ones that have acid dye and fiber reactive dye but they print directly onto the fabric and our IoTea bot, whom you’ve just met, steams them as they are fed into a rinse wash and dried before it’s spread on that print/finish/cut table over there,” he states pointing to a long table.
“This robot here, Stanley, and his brother, Harvey, over there, RFID tag the pieces on the table and scan the sewing instructions. They take them off the table while determining the most efficient way to route them before hanging them on the mover rail system and sending the instructions to our Central Planning System. When the pieces reach their next stop they drop down and are picked up at the sewing machine or riveter or whatever it is they need. Most of them can feed the completed pieces back into the rail system, but a few robots are available if they have any trouble. And of course, we have a few humans if anything goes terribly wrong,” he says.
“Very impressive,” you say, “to run this whole operation with just four people.”
“Two”, he corrects you and a puzzled look appears on your face.
“Now let’s visit the Digital Diviners.” He leads the way to the large digital display walls. Scores of patterns and images flash constantly across the screen with some occasionally thrown to the side screens and remaining static. You presume those are the ones with design intent questions. “Miriam heads our customer translation team,” says Lewis.
“Hi Adrian, its Miriam here,” she says seemingly speaking into space, “I have a question about the sketch you submitted: do you have your retina display glasses handy? Yes, great. I just wanted to make sure you wanted it to look like the 3D model I’m showing you now. No? Ok well can you turn on your eyeglass projector function and draw where you’d like the bust line and sleeves to hit then?”
“Here we have our color assurance stations with our spectrobots, who also make sure the screen displays are calibrated,” Lewis continues, “and our final stop is inspection and shipping.”
“OK, this is what you want, right?” asks Miriam as you walk on. “Great, I’ll get that in the queue for you right away, it will ship tomorrow morning.”
“The last bit, is pretty simple,” Lewis begins. “Our inspector bots visually scan and stretch seams, test the trim attachments, and remove any additional RFIDs not taken out in the sewing lines – aside from the one in the side label, which we use for matching the shipping address and shipment tracking. Then they fold and box or bag and – voilà – it’s off to the Drone Dome for delivery.”
“Wow,” is about all you can say, “and the drones deliver straight to your customer?” “That’s it, unless it’s an especially large order,” Lewis replies. “I hope you’ve enjoyed your tour.” “It’s been surreal and impressive,” you answer, still a bit wide eyed.
“Well, if you’ll excuse me, I have a software update scheduled, I’m getting my visual recognition and taste sense upgraded.” “You’re a robot!” you say, amazed. “I prefer, ro-being,” he says, “the latest model from Japan, but I’m flattered you hadn’t noticed. Thanks for coming today, it was nice meeting you. Your badge will guide you out.”
As you arrive back at the mirrored sliding doors, your badge instructs you to drop it onto the shelf by the door. You remove it and feel a sense of serenity as the doors slide open with a gentle hum. Walking into the bright afternoon sunlight, you head to the tearoom across the road and wonder just what you should order tomorrow.