ABB and IBM partner in industrial artificial intelligence solutions

ABB and IBM [recently] announced a strategic collaboration that brings together ABB’s industry leading digital offering, ABB Ability TM, with IBM Watson Internet of Things cognitive capabilities to unlock new value for customers in utilities, industry, transport and infrastructure.

Customers will benefit from ABB’s deep domain knowledge and extensive portfolio of digital solutions combined with IBM’s expertise in artificial intelligence and machine learning as well as different industry verticals. The first two joint industry solutions powered by ABB Ability and Watson will bring real-time cognitive insights to the factory floor and smart grids.

ABB and IBM Partner in Industrial Artificial Intelligence Solutions

“This powerful combination marks truly the next level of industrial technology, moving beyond current connected systems that simply gather data, to industrial operations and machines that use data to sense, analyze, optimize and take actions that drive greater uptime, speed and yield for industrial customers,” said ABB CEO Ulrich Spiesshofer. “With an installed base of 70 million connected devices, 70,000 digital control systems and 6,000 enterprise software solutions, ABB is a trusted leader in the industrial space, and has a four decade long history of creating digital solutions for customers. IBM is a leader in artificial intelligence and cognitive computing. Together, IBM and ABB will create powerful solutions for customers to benefit from the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

New suite of breakthrough solutions

The new suite of breakthrough solutions developed by ABB and IBM will help companies address in a completely new way some of their biggest industrial challenges, such as improving quality control, reducing downtime and increasing speed and yield of industrial processes. These solutions will move beyond current connected systems that simply gather data, to cognitive industrial machines that use data to understand, sense, reason and take actions supporting industrial workers to help eliminate inefficient processes and redundant tasks.

“This important collaboration with ABB will take Watson even deeper into industrial applications — from manufacturing, to utilities, to transportation and more,” said Ginni Rometty, IBM Chairman, president and CEO. “The data generated from industrial companies’ products, facilities and systems holds the promise of exponential advances in innovation, efficiency and safety. Only with Watson’s broad cognitive capabilities and our platform’s unique support for industries can this vast new resource be turned into value, with trust. We are eager to work in partnership with ABB on this new industrial era.”

Bringing real-time cognitive insights to the factory floor

For example, ABB and IBM will leverage Watson’s artificial intelligence to help find defects via real-time production images that are captured through an ABB system, and then analyzed using IBM Watson IoT for Manufacturing. Previously these inspections were done manually, which was often a slow and error-prone process. By bringing the power of Watson’s real time cognitive insights directly to the shop floor in combination with ABB’s industrial automation technology, companies will be better equipped to increase the volume flowing through their production lines while improving accuracy and consistency. As parts flow through the manufacturing process, the solution will alert the manufacturer to critical faults – not visible to the human eye – in the quality of assembly. This enables fast intervention from quality control experts. Easier identification of defects impacts all goods on the production line, and helps improve a company’s competitiveness while helping avoid costly recalls and reputational damage.

Bringing real-time cognitive insights to smart grids

In another example. ABB and IBM will apply Watson’s capabilities to predict supply patterns in electricity generation and demand from historical and weather data, to help utilities optimize the operation and maintenance of today’s smart grids, which are facing the increased complexity created by the new balance of conventional as well as renewable power sources. Forecasts of temperature, sunshine and wind speed will be used to predict consumption demand, which will help utilities determine optimal load management as well as real-time pricing.

About ABB

ABB (ABBN: SIX Swiss Ex) is a pioneering technology leader in electrification products, robotics and motion, industrial automation and power grids, serving customers in utilities, industry and transport & infrastructure globally. Continuing more than a 125-year history of innovation, ABB today is writing the future of industrial digitalization and driving the Energy and Fourth Industrial Revolutions. ABB operates in more than 100 countries with about 132,000 employees.

About IBM

For more information, please visit,– solutions/iot-manufacturing/ and follow @IBMIoT on Twitter.

>> From IBM News Release, April 25, 2017.

An Ephiphany of Disruption: GE Additive Chief Explains How 3D Printing Will Upend Manufacturing

A decade ago, engineers at CFM International, a joint venture between GE Aviation and France’s Safran Aircraft Engines, started designing a new, fuel-efficient jet engine for single-aisle passenger planes.

The CFM team got to work and came up with a new engine that could dramatically reduce fuel consumption as well as emissions. A key to the breakthrough was the wildly complex interior of the of the engine’s fuel nozzles. Developed by GE Aviation, the nozzles’ tips spray fuel into the jet engine’s combustor and help determine how efficient it is.

But there was a problem. The tips’ interior geometry was too complex. It had more than 20 parts that had to be welded and brazed together. It was almost impossible to make.

Mohammad Ehteshami, the former head of engineering at GE Aviation who now runs GE Additive, had one last idea for getting the nozzle made. He and others involved in the project now wanted to know whether Morris Technologies would be able to use 3D printing for mass production of a complex part, something nobody had tried before. Starting in the 1990s, GE Aviation engineers in Cincinnati had been working with a local company called 3D printing company Morris Technologies for prototyping.

The team sent Morris a computer model of the nozzle, which was printed from nickel alloy within the next few days.  The nozzle met the team’s wildest expectations. With all 20 parts combined into a single unit, the nozzle also weighed 25 percent less than an ordinary nozzle and was more than five times as durable.

The 3D printed nozzle combined all 20 parts into a single unit, but it also weighed 25 percent less. “In the design of jet engines, complexity used to be expensive,” Ehteshami says. But additive allows you to get sophisticated and reduces costs at the same time. This is an engineer’s dream.” (Image credit: Adam Senatori for GE Reports)

GE Aviation acquired Morris’ company in 2012, and Ehteshami, Morris and their teams immediately started testing the technology’s limits and looking for new applications. Subsequently, GE opened a 3D printing factory for the nozzles in Auburn, Alabama.

In 2016, GE expanded its additive portfolio and spent more than $1 billion to buy controlling stakes in two leading manufacturers of industrial 3D printers: Sweden’s Arcam AB and Germany’s Concept Laser. While Concept Laser’s machines use lasers to shape components from metallic powder, Arcam uses an electron beam, which is more powerful. It enables the machines to print faster and fuse layers as thick at 100 microns, twice the width of what a laser can print. It also can grow parts from wonder materials like titanium aluminate (TiAl), which is 50 percent lighter than steel but very hard to shape. An additive factory in Cameri, Italy, is already printing TiAl turbine blades for the GE9X, a jet engine even larger than the GE90.

GE’s growth in the application of additive manufacturing is innovative and deliberate.  Ehteshami calls his additive awakening an “epiphany of disruption.” Once you start thinking about it, you realize both intellectually and emotionally “if I don’t start moving, somebody else will.”

>> Read more by Tomas Kellner, GE Reports, March 6, 2017

‘Space Fabric’ Links Fashion and Engineering

Raul Polit Casillas grew up around fabrics. His mother is a fashion designer in Spain, and, at a young age, he was intrigued by how materials are used for design.

Now, as a systems engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, he is still very much in the world of textiles. He and his colleagues are designing advanced woven metal fabrics for use in space.

This metallic “space fabric” was created using 3-D printed techniques that add different functionality to each side of the material. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

These fabrics could potentially be useful for large antennas and other deployable devices, because the material is foldable and its shape can change quickly. The fabrics could also eventually be used to shield a spacecraft from meteorites, for astronaut spacesuits, or for capturing objects on the surface of another planet. One potential use might be for an icy moon like Jupiter’s Europa, where these fabrics could insulate the spacecraft. At the same time, this flexible material could fold over uneven terrain, creating “feet” that won’t melt the ice under them.

The prototypes that Polit Casillas and colleagues have created look like chain mail, with small silver squares strung together. But these fabrics were not sewn by hand; instead, they were “printed,” created in one piece with advanced technologies.

A technique called additive manufacturing, otherwise known as 3-D printing on an industrial scale, is necessary to make such fabrics. Unlike traditional manufacturing techniques, in which parts are welded together, additive manufacturing deposits material in layers to build up the desired object. This reduces the cost and increases the ability to create unique materials.

“We call it ‘4-D printing’ because we can print both the geometry and the function of these materials,” said Polit Casillas. “If 20th Century manufacturing was driven by mass production, then this is the mass production of functions.”

Fabricating spacecraft designs can be complex and costly, said Andrew Shapiro-Scharlotta of JPL, whose office funds research for early-stage technologies like the space fabric. He said that adding multiple functions to a material at different stages of development could make the whole process cheaper. It could also open the door to new designs.

“We are just scratching the surface of what’s possible,” Shapiro-Scharlotta said. “The use of organic and non-linear shapes at no additional costs to fabrication will lead to more efficient mechanical designs.”

The space fabrics have four essential functions: reflectivity, passive heat management, foldability and tensile strength. One side of the fabric reflects light, while the other absorbs it, acting as a means of thermal control. It can fold in many different ways and adapt to shapes while still being able to sustain the force of pulling on it.

The JPL team not only wants to try out these fabrics in space someday, they want to be able to manufacture them in space, too.

Separate from his space fabric research, Polit Casillas co-leads JPL’s Atelier, a workshop that does rapid prototyping of advanced concepts and systems. This fast-paced, collaborative environment develops different technologies and infuses them into new concepts, one of which is 4-D printing.

In the distant future, Polit Casillas said, astronauts might be able to print materials as they’re needed — and even recycle old materials, breaking them down and reusing them. Conservation is critical when you’re trapped in space with just the resources you take with you.

But it would also be critical to think about new forms. Print a single plate of aluminum, and it has limited functionality. Print the same plate using a heat-radiating design, and suddenly it’s more useful. Spacecraft housing could have different functionality on its outsides and insides, becoming more than just structural.

“I can program new functions into the material I’m printing,” Polit Casillas said. “That also reduces the amount of time spent on integration and testing. You can print, test and destroy material as many times as you want.”

This kind of design-based thinking could revolutionize the way spacecraft are engineered. Instead of having to assemble something with dozens of parts, all of which create potential points of failure, the spacecraft of the future could be created “whole cloth” — and with added function, as well.

>> NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory News, April 18, 2017

Pallets + Robots = a Competitive Advantage?

Palletizing is a trending application for collaborative robots. Could it give a competitive edge to your business? Robotiq looks at the history of pallets and their importance for modern logistics.

Packaging is one of top applications for collaborative robots. Unsurprisingly, pallets are a huge part of this. Many small businesses send and receive goods on pallets. The job of loading and unloading is repetitive, boring and ergonomically risky. Robots are an obvious solution.

Pallets have revolutionized global logistics. Since the 1920’s they have played a significant role in the world economy. They have had huge impacts on product design, from IKEA mugs to children’s books. It’s common for products to be redesigned to fit more units onto one pallet.

Pallets were born around the 1920’s, coinciding with the invention of the forklift truck. This was no coincidence. Forklifts suddenly provided a way to transport heavy loads around the warehouse. Pallets made it quick and easy to lift high volumes of product and stack them on top of each other.

Up until the 1950s, pallets were still loaded manually. When mechanical palletizers finally came on the scene, humans hands were suddenly freed from the repetitive, physical work of loading and unloading.

When industrial robots appeared, it wasn’t long until they were being used for palletizing. The first robotic palletizer was introduced by Fuji Yusoki Kogyo in 1963.  Suddenly, palletization could be as almost as flexible as a human worker.

Robots palletizers had many advantages over their mechanical predecessors:

  • They are inherently reprogrammable.
  • They often take up less space.
  • They can easily handle many different product types.
  • They can do mixed-case palletizing.


With the rise of collaborative robots, the transition from human hands to robot hands is complete. Unlike previous robot palletizers, which used large industrial robots, collaborative robots are accessible to even the smallest of businesses.

Pallets themselves are now ubiquitous, but it’s now especially important how you handle them. Businesses can differentiate themselves by improving the palletization and depalletization of products from these pallets.

Robotic packaging and distribution is becoming increasingly important thanks to the popularity of ecommerce and distributed supply chains. Small businesses need to be able to scale their order fulfillment quickly without incurring extra expenses or introducing delays in the orders.


Currently, only 20% of logistics warehouses use automation. However, this looks likely to increase. A recent DHL trend report showed that robot usage in logistics is rising. It suggested that cobots are more effective than non-collaborative robots when it comes to the needs of logistics.

Distribution of products can be a deciding factor in the scalability of a business. Warehousing has the potential to provide a competitive advantage to those businesses that can use it effectively, and robotics is becoming a key tool for doing that.

In an article from Food Logistics, supply chain consultant Tony Vercillo explained why automation can help businesses to thrive in the modern climate:

“The trick to warehousing is eliminating human touches. Every time a human touches a pallet or a case, an expense occurs. Technology should be used to reduce the number of touches and steps within the warehouse process.”

Collaborative robot palletizing can bring these advantages within the reach of small businesses. We don’t all need to have fully-automated warehouses like Amazon does to benefit from automated packaging.

>> Read more by Alex Owen-Hill, Robotiq, April 18, 2017

Shaping the Future of CAD

Three big evolutions are shaping the future of computer-aided design software and influencing CAD users’ expectations — and enabling a highly personalized experience, seamless and expanded collaboration, and universal access to game-changing insights.

(Image: Autodesk)

The Growing Importance of Personalization

The future lies in providing users with platform technologies that can easily be configured and augmented. Within the product, it will be simple for users to discover and test add-ons and third-party vertical applications complementing a base product.

Adding updated features to your existing workflow and upgrading software will be seamless. This will be true not only for features, user interfaces, and tools, but also for training and learning materials, content, additional subscription benefits, and more — all of which will be recommended or served at the right time based on the user’s design intent and preferences.

The shift toward a subscription model and cloud-based services will allow software vendors to become much more intelligent and agile in terms of offering what’s right for each user and organization, while also helping them gradually and seamlessly adopt the next level of technology

Improved Collaboration Will Occur in the Cloud

Now, imagine a world where collaborating is more streamlined. The move to cloud-based design technology will free up some of the constraints that arise when only a single user can work on a file at a time. A world where connecting different tools is seamless and file formats and software releases won’t matter or exist, freeing users from the challenges of versions, compatibility and interoperability. There will be one version, one platform and one design, and it will be maintained in the cloud. The advent of design and drafting software reduces the time and cost to change a design, enabling far greater degrees of collaboration.

The power of the crowd is really where the new generation of CAD will find its potential.  At some point, there will be digital marketplaces and social networks that will allow CAD users to connect with one another from within their application, share — and eventually monetize best practices, content, add-ons, and engineering solutions.

Universal Access to Rich Data and Transformational Insights

The real value of having data stored in the cloud will come from the insights that will be provided back to users, design team managers and executives. For example, one challenge for users is not being able to reuse old designs, as old data isn’t well archived, or is hard to search (or when knowledge leaves with employees). Analyzing data from past projects will provide users with contextual content, like blocks or templates, as people design.

Almost any question you could ask about a project will have an answer: How many individuals in a department touched the model? How many hours have been spent on the project across different disciplines and tasks? What were the friction points, and where can workflows be improved?

Companies embracing the cloud early on for their design and collaboration applications will have a significant competitive advantage.

>> Read more by Rob Maguire, IndustryWeek, April 13, 2017

Ford Tests Large-Scale 3D Printing with Light-Weighting and Personalization in Mind

Ford Motor Company is exploring how large-scale one-piece auto parts, like spoilers, could be printed for prototyping and future production vehicles, as the first automaker to pilot the Stratasys Infinite Build 3D printer.

(Image Source: Ford Motor Company)

Capable of printing automotive parts of practically any shape or length, the Stratasys Infinite Build system could be a breakthrough for vehicle manufacturing – providing a more efficient, affordable way to create tooling, prototype parts and components for low-volume vehicles such as Ford Performance products, as well as personalized car parts. The new 3D printer system is housed at Ford Research and Innovation Center in Dearborn.

“With Infinite Build technology, we can print large tools, fixtures and components, making us more nimble in design iterations,” said Ellen Lee, Ford technical leader, additive manufacturing research. “We’re excited to have early access to Stratasys’ new technology to help steer development of large-scale printing for automotive applications and requirements.”

An emerging technology for manufacturing

Wider adoption of 3D printing has been driven by recent technology advances, new areas of application and government support, according to Global Industry Analysts. By 2020, the global market for this emerging technology is expected to reach $9.6 billion, the organization reports. As 3D printing becomes increasingly efficient and affordable, companies are employing it for manufacturing applications in everything from aerospace to education to medicine.

3D printing could bring immense benefits for automotive production, including the ability to produce lighter-weight parts that could lead to greater fuel efficiency. A 3D-printed spoiler, for instance, may weigh less than half its cast metal counterpart.

The technology is more cost efficient for production of low-volume parts for prototypes and specialized race car components. Additionally, Ford could use 3D printing to make larger tooling and fixtures, along with personalized components.

How it works

With 3D printing, specifications for a part are transferred from the computer-aided design program to the printer’s computer, which analyzes the design. The device then goes to work, printing one layer of material at a time, then gradually stacking layers into a finished 3D object.

When the system detects the raw material or supply material canister is empty, a robotic arm automatically replaces it with a full canister. This allows the printer to operate unattended for hours – days, even.

Benefits of 3D printing

Using traditional methods to develop, say, a new intake manifold, an engineer would create a computer model of the part, then have to wait months for prototype tooling to be produced. With 3D printing technology, Ford can print the intake manifold in a couple of days, at a significant cost reduction.

3D printing is not yet fast enough for high-volume manufacturing, but it is more cost efficient for low-volume production. Additionally, minus the constraints of mass-production processes, 3D-printed parts can be designed to function more efficiently.

>> Ford Motor Company News, March 6, 2017

Swingin’ robot made to watch crops from above

When you’ve got a crop full of plants growing in a field, inspecting each and every one of them can be very monotonous work. That’s why scientists are working on plant-inspecting robots, that perform the task autonomously. Most of those ‘bots are wheeled, however, meaning that they could get stuck or fall over – plus they might get in the way of other machinery. With that in mind, scientists from Georgia Tech have created a prototype robot that swings over the plants like a monkey. It’s called Tarzan.

Although the Tarzan robot does bring apes to mind, it was actually inspired by the sloth (Credit: Georgia Tech)

The idea is that in fields where a Tarzan robot is being used, each row of plants will have a tightly-strung guy wire running overhead. Using its two “arms,” the robot will swing itself along that wire, imaging the plants below with its built-in cameras as it does so. When it gets to the end of one row, it will just swing over to the wire running above the next row over, and start making its way back down it. That process will be repeated, until it covers the whole field.

The robot could conceivably transmit its photos back to the farmer’s laptop computer, where algorithms would be used to analyze the images. In this way, without having to spend hours stooped over in the fields, the farmer could find out if any of the plants were showing signs of dehydration, disease or other problems.

Although Tarzan does bring monkeys to mind, it was actually inspired by the sloth, in that it hangs by its arms and is designed to be very energy-efficient. Enough so, that it might eventually be purely solar-powered.

“It could be out there in the field, powered by the sun, and swinging along on its way without needing batteries or needing to be charged,” says Dr. Jonathan Rogers, who is leading the project along with Dr. Ai-Ping Hu. “It could live outside for literally months at a time.”

In the more immediate future, however, plans call for the technology to tested in soybean test fields located near Athens, Georgia this summer.

Tarzan can be seen in action (albeit indoors), in the video below.

>> This article re-posted in its entirety from New Atlas, April 17, 2017

New Method for 3D Printing Extraterrestrial Materials

When humans begin to colonize the moon and Mars, they will need to be able to make everything from small tools to large buildings using the limited surrounding resources.

Northwestern Engineering’s Ramille Shah and her Tissue Engineering and Additive Manufacturing (TEAM) Laboratory have demonstrated the ability to 3D-print structures with simulants of Martian and lunar dust. This work uses an extension of their “3D-painting process,” a term that Shah and her team use for their novel 3D inks and printing method, which they previously employed to print hyperelastic “bone”, 3D graphene and carbon nanotubes, and metals and alloys.

Tools and building blocks made by 3D printing with lunar and Martian dust. (Source:

“For places like other planets and moons, where resources are limited, people would need to use what is available on that planet in order to live,” said Shah, assistant professor of materials science and engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and of surgery in the Feinberg School of Medicine. “Our 3D paints really open up the ability to print different functional or structural objects to make habitats beyond Earth.”

Partially supported by a gift from Google and performed at Northwestern’s Simpson Querrey Institute, the research was recently published in Nature Scientific Reports. Adam Jakus, a Hartwell postdoctoral fellow in Shah’s TEAM lab, was the paper’s first author. Two former Northwestern Engineering undergraduates, Katie Koube, who currently works as an engineer for SpaceX, and Nicholas Geisendorfer, who is now a graduate student in Shah’s lab, co-authored the work.

Shah’s research uses NASA-approved lunar and Martian dust simulants, which have similar compositions, particle shapes, and sizes to the dusts found on lunar and Martian surfaces. Shah’s team created the lunar and Martian 3D paints using the respective dusts, a series of simple solvents, and biopolymer, then 3D printed them with a simple extrusion process. The resulting structures are over 90 percent dust by weight.

Despite being made of rigid micro-rocks, the resulting 3D-painted material is flexible, elastic, and tough — similar to rubber. This is the first example of rubber-like or soft materials resulting from lunar and Martian simulant materials. The material can be cut, rolled, folded, and otherwise shaped after being 3D painted, if desired.

“We even 3D-printed interlocking bricks, similar to Legos, that can be used as building blocks,” Shah said.

Shah and David Dunand, the James N. and Margie M. Krebs Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, are currently collaborating to optimize ways to fire these 3D-painted structures in a furnace, which is an optional process that can transform the soft, rubbery objects into hard, ceramic-like structures. In the context of the broader 3D-painting technology, this work highlights the potential to use a single 3D printer on another planet to create structures from all kinds of materials.

Even though colonizing other planets might take a while, Shah believes that it’s never too soon to start planning.

>> Written by Amanda Morris, Northwestern McCormick School of Engineering News, April 12, 2017

Caterpillar, Lockheed Martin, P&G Lead Effort to Shape Future of Augmented Reality

As technologies become more prevalent there is often a need to produce guidelines that will ensure standardization. On April 11, a standard was released by UI Labs and Augmented Reality for Enterprise Alliance (AREA). The standard comprises AR hardware and software functional requirements.

These AR functional requirements documents will lead to technology that improves the performance and efficiency for manufacturers in a number of areas, including employee training and safety; factory floor and field services operations; machine assembly, inspection and repair; manufacturing space and product design, according to the groups.

The requirements were initially created through a collaboration between UI LABS and the AREA and delivered through a project led by Lockheed Martin, Caterpillar and Procter & Gamble. Recently, 65 organizations — including industry, AR providers, universities, and government agencies — came together for a workshop to discuss the requirements and offer insights into their challenges and needs in order to further develop the guidelines.

It’s important for any new global ecosystem to agree on a baseline set of requirements. They can act as a benchmark, help to create a shared understanding and language, and provide direction to the Enterprise AR ecosystem.

For Enterprises: AR functional requirements encourage interoperability, make RFPs easier to create, and provide a clear understanding of what is required.

For AR Providers: AR functional requirements clarify what enterprises need to make AR projects successful, which can then be used to influence development roadmaps and future product launches.

AR-assisted assembly supports users in accomplishing manufacturing activities and product assembly processes, by augmenting key workflows and procedures using, where possible, existing technical publication repositories. (Source:

Augmented reality superimposes computer-generated content on a user’s view of the real world, using glasses, headsets or tablets to provide a composite view. Unlike virtual reality, which creates a totally artificial environment, AR retains the existing environment and displays new information on top of it.

>> Read more from IndustryWeek (4/11/17) and Augmented Reality for Enterprise Alliance.

The Enhanced Manufacturing Worker

Even though Iron Man and RoboCop are fictional characters, exoskeletons are the real thing.  But they are being created for a slightly different purpose than entertainment, with greater value and practical purpose. No science-fiction movie gives an accurate definition of what scientists are trying to do. They get strong, they run fast, they jump over buildings. It’s difficult to entertain by showing workers who just need to work a little more efficiently, a little quicker.

The wearable robotics industry is projected to develop into a $2 billion global market within the next decade. What can you expect between then and now? And how can you apply this tech to your floor and see real ROI?

Hiromicho Fujimoto, president of ActiveLink, developed the Power Effector — a power-assist device with to ease the physical burden endured by workers.

The Power Effector from ActiveLink (Source:

According to various research, reports and industry estimates, worker overexertion works out to about $15 billion annually for employers in terms of lost time and workers’ compensation. Who wouldn’t want to turn to tech to curb that figure?

Lifting a 10- or 15-pound item over and over again tends to create long-term stresses on the body. An exoskeleton may allow a worker to lift more, more often, and more safely.  Reducing your injury incidences results in a reduction in time away from work in recuperation, which equals hard savings to an employer.

The leg frames Fujimoto created are designed more for disaster areas, allowing first responders an easier path through rubble or up steep inclines. But the backpack weight belts alleviate stress from the waist and hips while lifting heavy objects. They’re designed not to make workers stronger, but to ease the burden of tedious or monotonous work. And they seem perfect for factories.

There are drawbacks, of course. ActiveLink and other exoskeleton companies tend to rely heavily on motors, which DARPA reportedly told Fujimoto is not practical. The learning curve for radically new machines can be far longer than most manufacturers are used to, too.

Kazerooni — the father of modern exoskeletons — is inspired not by movies, but by real workers whose load is figuratively and literally lightened by such products. Kazerooni founded Ekso Bionics, among the current leaders in exoskeleton development, back in 2005. He later left the company and, in 2012, founded suitX, which is arguably Ekso’s biggest competitor.

Kazerooni has worked with the U.S. military to help develop the Berkeley Lower Extremity Exoskeleton (BLEEX) and the Human Universal Load Carrier (HULC). Now his attention is on introducing affordable exoskeletons to the market for child paraplegics and, of course, industrial workers.

According to Kazerooni, many tasks cannot be automated, but we can take care of the workers and have a better work environment. These are the workers who do unstructured jobs — filling up trucks with boxes, bending, squatting, using their whole bodies.  We can’t replace the workers; we just give them strength. It lets them work and have less risk of injury.

Worker wearing the MAX (Modular Agile eXoskeleton)

MAX (Modular Agile eXoskeleton) (Source:

The new suitX MAX — short for Modular Agile eXoskeleton — can decrease stress by about 50% for payloads of 30 or 40 pounds, and about 40% for payloads of as much as 100 pounds. If you’re picking up 50 pounds, this makes it feel like 20 or 25.

Kazerooni does not believe that all manufacturing jobs can be, will be, or need to be automated.  And, he does not believe that all workers will be replaced by robots.

Military and Industry Interest

More than anybody else, the U.S. military are using exoskeletons today, having worked with suitX and Lockheed Martin, among other companies.  Also, every major automotive manufacturer. Toyota and Honda are both developing power-assist walking devices.

Will exoskeletons catch on?  Well, no one could have predicted the rise of cell phones, tablets, 3-printing, or the idea of space travel.  Necessity is the mother of invention. Life imitates art.  Who knows what the future holds, really?

>> Read more by Matt LaWell, IndustryWeek, April 6, 2017

Lawrence Livermore reinventing metal 3D printing with new direct writing process

Metal 3D printing has enormous potential to revolutionize modern manufacturing. However, the most popular metal printing processes, which use lasers to fuse together fine metal powder, have their limitations. Parts produced using selective laser melting (SLM) and other powder-based metal techniques often end up with gaps or defects caused by a variety of factors.

To overcome the drawbacks of SLM, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory researchers, along with collaborators at Worchester Polytechnic Institute (link is external), are taking a wholly new approach to metal 3D printing with a process they call direct metal writing, in which semisolid metal is directly extruded from a nozzle. The metal is engineered to be a shear thinning material, which means it acts like a solid when standing still, but flows like a liquid when a force is applied. The results of the ongoing three-year study were published in February in Applied Physics Letters.

“We’re in new territory,” said lead author Wen Chen, an LLNL materials scientist. “We’ve advanced a new metal additive manufacturing technique that people aren’t aware of yet. I think a lot of people will be interested in continuing this work and expanding it into other alloys.”

Instead of starting with metal powder, the direct metal writing technique uses an ingot that is heated until it reaches a semi-solid state — solid metal particles are surrounded by a liquid metal, resulting in a paste-like behavior, then it’s forced through a nozzle. The material is shear thinning because, when it’s at rest, the solid metal particles clump up and cause the structure to be solid. As soon at the material moves, or is in shear, the solid particles break up and the system acts like the liquid matrix. It hardens as it cools, so there’s less incorporated oxide and less residual stress in the part, the researchers explained.

Unlike other metal 3D printing techniques that use lasers to fuse metal powder, the direct metal writing approach incorporates an ingot that is heated until it reaches a semi-solid state before it’s forced through a nozzle. As it cools, the material hardens to form a 3D metal structure. (Source: LLNL)

While encouraged by their success in printing test pieces, the researchers cautioned the method is still in its early stages and will need more work to achieve higher resolution parts with more industry-friendly metals, such as aluminum and titanium. In the paper, the team produced parts using a bismuth-tin mixture, which has a low melting point of less than 300 degrees Celsius. The process took numerous iterations to get right, as researchers ran into the problem of dendrites — fingers of solid metal that would get stuck in the nozzle.

“The main issue was getting very tight control over the flow,” said LLNL engineer Andy Pascall. “You need precise control of the temperature. How you stir it, how fast you stir it, all makes a difference. If you can get the flow properties right, then you really have something. What we’ve done is really understand the way the material is flowing through the nozzle. Now we’ve gotten such good control that we can print self-supporting structures. That’s never been done before.”

The researchers said the latest study will provide accurate operating conditions for printing with metal directly from a nozzle. They’re already moving onto aluminum alloys, a metal that would be more attractive to industries such as aerospace and transportation, but will present challenges because of its higher melting point.

“Being able to print parts out of metal in this way is potentially important,” said staff scientist Luke Thornley, who worked on engineering the material. “So much of the work that goes into validation and analyzing for defects would be eliminated. We can use less material to make parts, meaning lighter parts, which would be big for aerospace.”

The project is funded by the Laboratory Directed Research & Development program. Other LLNL researchers included in the study were Hannah Coe, Sam Tonneslan, John Vericella (formerlly of LLNL), Cheng Zhu, Eric Duoss, Ryan Hunt, Josh Kuntz and Chris Spadaccini.

>> Read more by Jeremy Thomas, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory News, March 30, 2017

Next-Gen Sensors Are Delivering Savings to Manufacturers

The largest cause of disruptive and expensive unplanned downtime in manufacturing plants is motor breakdowns. Each production line has dozens, even hundreds of motors, and each one is vulnerable to unexpected problems. In large plants with multiple lines, the motor count can go into the thousands. Tiffany Huang, research analyst at Lux Research, makes the case for the value of next-generation sensors.

“Valuable ROI means cost reductions. The sensor can be deployed for predictive maintenance or safety for those working along with robots,” said Huang. “Also, sensors can give you a complete view of your facility, and that can mean cost reduction.”

Sensors for Maintenance and Safety Both

Part of the reason sensors are becoming a bigger part of the manufacturing mix is because they’ve come down in price significantly.  They’re getting cheaper and smaller, and they’re going mainstream. For maintenance, you want sensors that tell if something is about to fail. That means sensors that detect vibration, temperature, ultrasound, or increases in noise levels.

Beyond predictive maintenance, sensors are also working to support quality control and to determine when an asset has reached the end of its useful life. You can have in-line quality control, imaging techniques, optical detection, or chemical detection. Also, you can measure machines to see if they’ve been used to their maximum.

Preventing worker injury is another value of new sensors. Next-gen sensors can detect dangerous situations. For safety, you can place sensors on machines or on workers.  Sensors can also be used to let workers know if they’re in a hazardous environment.

Deploying an Effective Sensor System

A large part of a sensor solution is the ability to collect data, store it effectively, and then analyze it to produce effective action.  If you have a couple of sensors, you can use Ethernet connectivity.  If you have more than a few, you can use wireless connectivity like Bluetooth or WiFi. Longer range sensors may require cellular smartphone technology. And, there are also new, low-power wide-area connections.

Many companies offer packaged services, which include sensors and a connectivity system. The packages typically include the ability to store the data and perform analytics. The analytics horsepower is important so you can get insights from the data. And, the interface is important.  It needs to be intuitive because you don’t want to have to train someone for a year.

>> Read more by Rob Spiegel, Design News, April 10, 2017

Style & Substance: The New Wave of Industrial Wearables

In a two-part series, New Equipment Digest highlights some startups you may not of heard of, with wearable products that could rival Google Glass on the factory floor.

Recon Instruments, maker of the Recon Jet Pro smart glasses, and Upskill, developer of the Skylight enterprise wearable software solution, entered the fourth industrial revolution through the side door and are on the verge of becoming the rock stars of the industrial wearable market.

It’s expected that 8% of all American workers will use smart glasses on the job by 2025, according to Forrester Research. And the workers will need them to keep up with an increasingly automated world.  In many ways, industrial wearables can be viewed as the most important tool you’ll use in the coming decade.

Recon Instruments originally intended to make high-tech swimmers’ goggles, but the small form factor and waterproofing of electronics proved to be engineering impediments. Larger, rugged-yet-ergonomic skiers’ goggles, though, would be easy to embed with sensors and electronics. And these mountains would be the perfect place to product test.

The inertial sensors, including the gyroscope, magnetometer, and altimeter that Recon embedded, allowed the skiers to gauge vital data that instantly appeared right on the display, such as how long they spent soaring in the chilly alpine air and other totally extreme metrics, like 3D speed, GPS tracking, vertical distance traveled, temperature, and time.

Their initial offering, the $399-499 Transcend, became the first heads-up display for athletes.  Recon was one of the pioneers in heads-up displays, long before Google launched Google Glass. And, outsold Google Glass by far before it was discontinued.

Recon evolved with the sensor and smartphone technology, adding a better CPU, sensors, more connectivity, and a POV camera and audio. One offshoot became the Recon Jet, which looked more like Oakley wraparound sunglasses.

While the smart glasses’ appeal expanded to runners, cyclists, and even skydivers, these smart glasses had nearly everything you’d want if you had to wear a pair for your factory floor shift: an array of sensors, connectivity, durability, and comfort. Recon’s design already gathered several sets of relevant data to increase user efficiency.

Recon Jet Pro ruggedized smart glasses

Recon Jet Pro ruggedized smart glasses (Image: Intel)

With Intel’s acquisition of Recon, their smart glasses were supplied to their manufacturing and logistics workers as part of a pilot program to to see how these ruggedized glasses would hold up in an industrial work setting.

Typical warehouse picking operations, account for about 55% of labor resources. So, they strapped on the glasses and used a ring scanner for hands-free picking. Other hands-free options, such as picking by light, which spotlights boxes on the racks, require expensive infrastructure and aren’t 100% error proof.

The Recon Jet Pro ($599) works for indoor and outdoor environments, with a sunlight-readable display, waterproof components, and a swappable battery that can last up to 5 hours. A patented glance detection function saves more power by switching off when you aren’t looking at the LCD. A 720P camera records video, which can be streamed via Bluetooth or WiFi from the field to a remote expert.

>> Learn more about the Recon Jet Pro from John Hitch, New Equipment Digest, April 10, 2017

Upskill’s Skylight software platform has been the go-to enterprise solution for Johnson & Johnson, GE and several other major companies in their logistics, field service, and manufacturing operations.

It serves as the connective tissue between workers, the IoT, HMIs, ERPs, MRPs, and every other relevant industrial acronym, creating and running the necessary work instructions, tasks, and digitized data through a wearable to make the worker’s job as easy and error-free as possible.

Upskill smartglass interface from worker perspective.

With smartglasses attuned to your connected factory via a software solution like Skylight, every level of operation, from safety to production, becomes enhanced. (Source: Upskill)

At Boeing, Skylight-powered pairs of Google Glass completely eliminated the need for wire harness assemblers to constantly look over at paper instructions or a laptop for the next step. Instead they could view the instructions in the display, and use voice commands to proceed. All the while, they kept both hands twisting and looping miles of wires that will eventually end up on an aircraft. Boeing says the solution cut production time by 25% and reduced errors to almost zero. (Maybe Glass wasn’t such a disaster after all.)

At GE. workers would walk up to a specific piece of industrial equipment and see through their smart glasses real-time statuses of that machine data connected to GE’s Predix platform. Then the worker could pull up a series of work instructions and compare real-time machine data.

Recently released case studies from GE illustrate that this technology doesn’t lead to mild-mannered incremental improvement; this is full-on immediate action.

For at least the next three to five years, the sweet spot in enterprise wearables is going to be delivering preexisting information within their database in an assisted reality fashion to create a hands-free computing environment.

You’ve automated your plant. You’ve got sensors on everything. And, you’re pulling out all this information about your production and your workflow. The last piece of your manufacturing facility that’s not connected is your worker. Running a solution such as Recon Jet Pro and Skylight, your workforce is finally dressed for success.

>> Read more by John Hitch, New Equipment Digest, April 11, 2017

Aerospace Contractor Brings Custom Tooling In-House with FDM 3D Printing

CPI Aerostructures provides subassemblies almost exclusively for military aircraft.  Having grown from about 20 employees to nearly 300 in a short period of time, the company realized that its ability to meet its custom tooling needs hadn’t kept pace with this growth.

The company’s niche is assembly, work that requires jigs, fixtures, check gages and other custom items. All custom tooling was made by a small tooling department operating manual equipment, or it was farmed out to local machine shops.

To meet ever-increasing demand for custom tooling on the assembly floor, the company chose to add a fused-deposition modeling (FDM) 3D printer to bring more of its tooling work in-house and reduce time and cost of custom tooling.

Producing subassemblies for aircraft has been CPI Aerostructures’ specialty since the company was founded in 1980. Typically working as a subcontractor, CPI sources discrete parts from its global supply chain, fashions them into subassemblies, polishes and paints the assemblies as needed, and ships the finished pieces to the customer or main contractor.

In the past, the company would model the needed jigs and fixtures in-house and then send the design out to external shops, where the lead time was 12-14 weeks for a modest-sized tool that could cost several thousand dollars to $25,000 or more.

CPI added an in-house tooling department in 2012 to help alleviate some of the tooling needs as it grew. But overwhelming maintenance of in-house tooling department pushed the company to seek another solution. So, CPI purchased and installed a Fortus 360mc 3D printer. The FDM system offers a build envelope measuring 14 by 10 by 10 inches (355 by 254 by 254 mm) and enables CPI to print with both polycarbonate and nylon material.

Bringing the printer into the engineering department has dramatically reduced cost and turnaround time for custom tooling. In many cases, tooling can be printed in-house much more cheaply, usually for about 25 percent of the cost of outsourcing it to be machined. 3D printing is also much faster; by batching parts and running the printer overnight, CPI can have a complete tool in-hand in less than a week.

This bonnet for an A10 Thunderbolt aircraft is made of flexible sheet metal, which made it difficult to confirm that the part was good before CPI fixtured it for drilling. A check gage 3D-printed in four parts (right) now makes it possible to quickly check the parts before this stage. (Source: AM Magazine)

CPI can easily check the size and shape of the panel using a portable CMM once it is set up on the welding table. (Source: AM Magazine)

Additive manufacturing is not always the solution to every problem, nor is it always the complete solution. In many cases, the shop uses what he calls “hybrid tooling,” meaning tooling formed from a combination of printed and machined parts, each serving a specific function.

For the fixture for the engine inlet of an Embraer Phenom 300, CPI developed a “hybrid” fixture consisting of a central machined aluminum ring, with printed ASA pads and nylon “cannons”—the black hollow cylinders visible in the photo above. When the part is seated in this fixture, the cannons are flush against its inner diameter where the holes will be drilled. The nylon is soft enough to hold the part in place without marring its surface, and, with the impact-resistant polycarbonate behind it, provides needed support during hole drilling.

This engine inlet for the Embraer Phenom 300 requires a number of large holes to be drilled around its bottom circumference, a process that can cause the metal to buckle or bend. (Source: AM Magazine)

Given the positive impact that CPI has seen over the past few years, the company is now ready to upgrade its 3D printer.  3D printing capability is not necessarily something the company markets to its customers, but those who know about it see its value.

>> Read more by Stephanie Hendrixson, Additive Manufacturing Magazine, 3/29/2017