Bell Labs and Google—And Automation Companies?

Check out this essay by Om Malik, Bell Labs & Google: Bookends of the Same Sad Story? I’ve read his essays on the technology scene since the 90s. He has a track record. 

The essence of the story is that both of these storied organizations that developed so much of what we use have been captured with management rather than leaders lacking vision and the persistence to see things through.

That raised questions about the state of our industrial market. When I observe the major advertisers in the automation and control magazines are master distributors rather than technology developers, I wonder. I thought I saw reasons for optimism a few years ago at Rockwell Automation, but that seems to have fizzled. The cash still flows (for now) at the tech companies in the industrial market. But for how long?

Is the market so mature that small tweaks are all that is needed?

They all have the products that helped them grow. The question still begging an answer is what’s next, if anything.

Four Robotic Predictions for 2024: AI set to supercharge robotic automation

I’m not in love with predictions and I realize January is about gone, but here are some thoughts I picked up from Anders Billesø Beck, VP of Innovation and Strategy at Universal Robots.

2023 was an exciting year for innovation. The emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies, such as generative AI, captured global attention and dominated headlines. However, the adoption of generative AI for businesses is still very much in its early stages and questions around how best to harness this technology remain at the forefront of many minds.

Digital transformation is an ongoing process so we can expect to see this year’s breakthrough trends continuing to shape society into next year. But how will these trends impact robotics and automation and what can the manufacturing industry expect to see next year?

1)    AI will set a new pace of development in robotics and automation

AI is transforming the world of software development, making it cheaper, faster, and more effective. Software is a key component of automation, and with AI, software developers will be able to create more customized and optimized solutions for various tasks and challenges. If software development has sometimes felt like digging with a shovel, the introduction of AI is like bringing two horses and a plough to the process. However, automation expertise will remain a scarce and valuable resource in the process of AI revolutionizing manufacturing.

It has been interesting and perhaps surprising to see AI changing the lives of office workers before it touches working practices in most factories. I look forward to seeing the benefits of machine learning reach more manufacturers in 2024. After all, the technology is already there – we have many partners developing applications using AI to allow our robots to perform more complex and diverse functions. For example, AI allows robots to have human-like perception, handle variation, move parts precisely, adapt to changing environments, and learn from their own experience. With time, these capabilities will lead to unprecedented flexibility, quality and reliability in manufacturing.

2)    Developments in robotics software will enable more sharing and reuse

Robotics software is the glue that binds users to their mechanical counterparts – a digital connectivity that transcends physical interaction.

Software developments are enabling a new dimension of collaboration – connecting the people that use robots. 2024 will see software developments leading to new levels of sharing and reusability. Imagine a world where, instead of reinventing the wheel, we leverage existing software assets—components, interfaces, algorithms—across multiple applications. It’s a principle that already underpins our UR+ partner ecosystem, streamlining innovation and reducing time-to-market. I can’t wait to see this evolve next year.

3) Companies will fuse IT and OT using data to improve operations

The future of manufacturing is intricately linked to IT/OT integration as data will underpin innovation and efficiency. Research shows that the manufacturing industry has been at the forefront of adopting cloud-based software services and we are already seeing some customers use these to enhance quality, cost efficiency, and predictability. That makes me confident that 2024 will see the growth of data-driven logistics and manufacturing systems.

Many still have an outdated view of the cloud merely being a data collector and backup function, as we know if from our private lives. But the real potential and power doesn’t lie in storing data or even in linking machines. The real transformative leap comes when cloud-based software services connect humans and machines and thus help manufacturers simplify complex processes and make smarter decisions.

The benefits of this digital evolution are significant. Remote access to manufacturing data enables quick responses to issues and continuous automation improvement. With dynamic systems now essential, trusted cloud technologies offer the latest in security and state-of-the-art services. Industrial Internet of Things (IIOT) companies highlight this progression, promising improved efficiency and reduced downtime through Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) visualization and predictive maintenance.

As we approach 2024, manufacturers stand to gain from these advancements, achieving higher quality, reduced downtime, better predictability, and cost optimization. This transition is a strategic necessity, supporting the shift towards high-volume, high-mix production, resilient supply chains, competitive data utilization, and sustainability goals.

4) Logistics will be a focus area for robotics

Earlier this year, Interact Analysis looked at projected growth rates in robot shipments across industries. The stand-out projected growth area? Logistics, where Interact Analysis put the projected CAGR for collaborative robot (cobot) shipments at 46% for 2023-2027. I’m not surprised as the market for non-industrial applications is growing fast.

Like manufacturing, many logistics companies face serious labor shortages while pressure is increasing as a result of globalization, e-commerce and complex multichannel supply chains. More logistics, warehouse and distribution centers will turn to automation next year to provide services faster and with greater accuracy.

To take an example – facing the challenge of surging e-commerce demands, one logistics company we worked with revolutionized its fulfilment center with collaborative robots, resulting in a 500% surge in efficiency and order accuracy. The automation system, adept at processing thousands of orders daily, particularly excelled during peak periods, like Black Friday, where a robot managed up to 4,400 orders in one day with just a small crew for replenishment.

Robots– and the smart use of data – are poised to revolutionize logistics businesses across the whole value chain from incoming packages to outbound logistics.

The pace of development is robotics remains impressive – I look forward with great anticipation to another exciting year of progress.

Troubles Strike Boeing’s 737 Max Yet Again–Manufacturing Problems?

Poor manufacturing, or poor design, or both? One wonders about the 737 Max program at Boeing.

I don’t want to oversell myself, but I have worked in product development and program management. The stories about the program following the two early crashes hinted at management interference in the program. It almost sounded like pressure for shortcuts to get the planes out. They had many orders, but no plane. Then they had a plane, more orders, and needed to ramp up production. No shipments, no income. I’m sure we’ve all been there.

Why has the board of directors not fired the CEO? That’s all weird in some companies, though. I worked at one place where a ranking manager made several mistakes on programs that cost significant amounts of money—and that person was promoted. So, you never can tell.

This contains a word of warning for all of us manufacturing and production professionals. What we do can have serious repercussions down the line. It’s best to do our job well. And like in a well run Lean plant, pull the cord to stop production when we see a significant problem.

America’s Factory Construction Soaring

I have three news sources that I scan many days (not every one, but often). They offer quick views of the important news of the day with only a little of the usual click bait headline or occasional hype. 

This is a relevant item from Axios, one of my favorites relating to the American manufacturing economy.

America’s spending on the construction of new factories is surging.

Why it matters: The Biden administration’s signature legislation — particularly the CHIPs Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law — has spurred a surge in construction spending that’s buoyed the economy, as Axios’ Neil Irwin reported.

By the numbers: Manufacturing-related construction hit a $210 billion annual rate in November, more than triple the average rate in the 2010s, according to Census data out this week.

The Eclipse Foundation Releases 2023 IoT & Edge Developer Survey Results 

I’ve been sitting on additional news from The Eclipse Foundation. This news relates to its 2023 IoT & Edge Developer Survey. I find these results informative. Do they fit with your experience?

Administered by the Eclipse IoT Working Group and the Eclipse Sparkplug Working Group, the survey provides essential insights into IoT and edge computing industry landscapes, challenges developers face, and the opportunities for enterprise stakeholders in the IoT & edge open source ecosystem. Now in its ninth year, the survey is the IoT & edge industry’s leading technical survey. 

“This year’s results yielded some very interesting trends, particularly those related to real-world use cases and technology choices,” said Mike Milinkovich, executive director of the Eclipse Foundation. “What’s clear is that developers are actively building production solutions leveraging open source technologies to tackle today’s IoT challenges across industrial, agricultural, and municipal settings.”

The online survey was conducted from April 4, 2023, to July 5, 2023, during which 1,037 global developers, committers, architects, and decision-makers from a broad set of industries and organisations participated. Key findings include:

  • Development is increasing across all IoT sectors. Industrial automation is once again the top area of focus (33%, up from 22%), followed by agriculture (29 %, up from 23%),  building automation, energy management, and smart cities (all at 24%).
  • Developers indicate that Java is the preferred language for IoT gateways and edge nodes, while C, C++, and Java are the most widely used languages for constrained devices.
  • MQTT is the top IIoT communication protocol. Nearly half of developers (49%) indicate a preference for MQTT for IIoT communications, with MQTT + Sparkplug checking in at 8%.
  • The withdrawal of IoT Middleware providers has created an opportunity for innovators to enter the market. Google Cloud IoT Platform, Bosch IoT Suite, IBM Watson IoT, and SAP Internet of Things all exited the market in 2022 or announced their intent to do so. While nearly half of respondents indicated a relationship with one or more of these providers, only 12% have migrated to a new provider. 
  • Control logic (40%) surpassed artificial intelligence (37%) as the most common edge computing workload. Does this imply a renewed focus on the practical aspects of delivering real-world solutions? Only time will tell.
  • Software Supply Chain Security has become an essential issue for IoT/edge developers, with 70% saying it is vital to their work. 
  • 5G is enabling accelerated IIoT adoption. Cellular adoption has doubled since 2022 (44% vs. 22% in 2022) largely due to 5G penetration, while WiFi (38% vs. 36% in 2022), Ethernet (38% vs 29% in 2022) and Bluetooth (23% vs 20% in 2022) continue to be viable options.

The survey data contains further insights on developer choices for edge computing workloads, platform connectivity, developer concerns, and use case breakdowns by market. In addition, the report provides breakdowns of use cases by market and detailed recommendations on the next steps for IoT developers. The entire report can be downloaded here. 

Super Intelligence or Super Temper Tantrum?

Continuing in the realm of weird press releases today comes this gem about artificial intelligence company OpenAI and its leadership.

As the drama unfolds over leadership changes at AI lab OpenAI, valued at over $29 billion, social entrepreneur and thought leader Nicole Gibson, author of Legacy Disorder, has insightful commentary to offer on this saga that she believes reveals deeper issues around immature and reactive leadership in the tech industry.

Gibson contends that the volatile decision-making unfolding publicly at OpenAI reveals that some of the tech industry’s most powerful men are making hugely consequential leadership choices based on ego and emotion, rather than ethical responsibility. She argues that rash decisions made to satisfy personal power struggles could have devastating implications for humanity down the line if the leaders behind world-changing technology lack maturity and morals.

She continues about men. At the beginning of the “women’s liberation” movement when I was in university, I remember the argument that once women came into positions of power and responsibility they would bring some sort of “feminine” sensibility. I’m sure there are examples of that, but I’ve seen enough to think that it is not a universal trait. Perhaps like Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook (Meta)? I wrote several leadership editorials at Automation World and here about a school principal I knew who was the antithesis of anything close to good leadership.

Seems like human nature to me. 

I remember a personality questionnaire from when I took a college summer class while in high school. I still puzzle over it. The personality traits were based on 31 questions. The results said I was 16 for masculine and 15 for feminine. One question was, do you like to hunt? My family weren’t hunters. I had never had a rifle or shotgun in my hands. So I was feminine?

Any way, rant over. Some human beings exemplify the Social Darwinism survival of the fittest doctrine. Some don’t. 

Oh, and the unstated but apparent reason for the ouster of Sam Altman had to do with ethics. Three board members thought he was moving too quickly to unleash a potentially dystopian technology upon the unsuspecting world. It was ethics in their eyes. Microsoft had another ethic—called return to shareholders.

I must agree that many of the Silicon Valley types over the past 20 years have exhibited more characteristics of not-fully-brain-developed teenage boys than mature humans.

You sort it out.

Follow this blog

Get a weekly email of all new posts.