By Holger Paul
Humans on Mars? This is not something that will happen quite so soon, even if self-declared visionaries such as Elon Musk are currently enthusing about the first manned missions to the Red Planet. However, many technologies which just a few years ago were resigned to the realm of science fiction are now entering the market at a rapid pace. VDMAimpulse and Dr. Eric Maiser, Head of VDMA Future Business, have taken a look at the technology trends for 2018 and the opportunities they present for the mechanical engineering sector.
Voice recognition systems
Siri and Alexa have already become household names. Not everyone organizes their life using the voice recognition systems from Apple and Amazon, but the number of users is increasing. However, for voice commands to be viable in a factory setting, slightly different capabilities are required than those needed for booking a table in a restaurant. Can machines be controlled with voice commands? The number of applications for voice control is still relatively small, but the possible advantages cannot be overlooked, says Maiser. "And if human-machine interactions are enhanced with gesture control, then our use of machines will be taken to a whole new level," he explains. For example, buttons and touchscreens are awkward to use when assembling or maintaining machines, while hands-free systems save time and reduce the risk of operating errors. The concepts for controlling and operating machines are becoming ever more intuitive and could be individually customized for each employee. This means we can expect further great advances in the fields of voice and gesture control in 2018 and to see these technologies find their way into factories soon.
Will we soon be able to climb on board our own personal, self-driving taxi to be transported to our desired destination, without traffic jams and without any accidents? It is very unlikely as there are still so many unanswered questions and unsolved technical issues on the subject of autonomous driving. However, according to Maiser, the development of autonomous transport systems in factories is taking great leaps forward, as limited areas such as factory halls are a much better environment for such systems. The routes and processes, even the ambient lighting conditions, are all clearly defined and speeds are of course lower. Possible accident situations can be predicted more easily and thus avoided, while sudden inclement weather, the bane of every autonomous vehicle, is obviously not an issue in a factory. Clearly defined routes and complex guidance systems for driverless transport systems are therefore a thing of the past. "Even drone systems are currently being tested," Maiser adds. "3D logistics within the factory, with fantastic opportunities to increase speed and efficiency."
Artificial intelligence / machine learning
"Industrie 4.0 has already enabled factories to organize themselves, for example with the help of self-sufficient networked sensors which all work together. However, this is only the first step. With the help of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, even self-learning factories are possible," says the future researcher at VDMA. This is particularly interesting for expensive and complicated production processes where errors are not tolerated, which is why the use of AI in industries such as semi-conductor manufacturing is being driven with particular zeal. However, many traditional mechanical engineering companies such as Siemens or John Deere also want to use AI in their production processes in the future. This is a great opportunity for the mechanical engineering industry as a whole, but only if it can deliver the systems required for a self-learning factory. However, the great challenge faced when introducing AI in production facilities is that the system should actually learn from experience. Errors are a part of this process for humans and machines alike, which is why the procedure is being carried out step-by-step in order to avoid risking running operations. Predictive maintenance and platform economies are already perfectly suited for this. The majority of AI projects for factories will therefore continue to take place in test environments in 2018 - but their breakthrough onto the shop floor is coming, predicts Maiser.
The Olympic Winter Games in South Korea are just around the corner - and with them the introduction of the brand new fifth generation mobile network, 5G. Experts say that this is also a turning point for digital production. They claim that the previous LTE technology and traditional WiFi networks are far too slow for smart factories, but with 5G technology data transfer rates are set to rise to 10 gigabits per second. This technology will be introduced on a mass scale as early as 2020. However, is the only issue that of the immense investment amounts required for this technology? "5G is necessary to achieve data response times in the millisecond range and ensure a high data throughput, for example for AI," says Maiser. The mobile network coverage for 5G can be implemented far more readily in the limited area of a factory than in cities or in the countryside, where the new generation mobile network is to be used to make autonomous driving possible. However, machines are generally made of metal and the radio waves required for 5G cannot pass through them. 5G is currently still in the test phase, but the breakthrough of this technology seems inevitable. The technology will not be necessary for all applications - sensors which send a temperature value once an hour will not need 5G, and the "old" 3G networks are being updated for this very reason. Known as "Narrowband IoT", this technology has extremely low energy requirements, an extensive range and material penetration and will run alongside 5G.
Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin have got a long road ahead of them before they become an accepted mass product - that is if they even manage it at all. The dramatic and speculative rate changes deter most people from their purchase, an issue which runs contrary to the original idea of their use as a method of payment. The blockchain technology upon which this is based, however, is more fundamental and is currently in the process of reshaping the financial world. And according to Eric Maiser, it won't stop there. The whole blockchain concept, which at its core is a gigantic, digital book of accounts spread across tens of thousands of computers with unlimited access for all users at all times, is continuously being developed and is an attractive prospect for ever more industries and applications. Blockchain could be used to create a much faster link between production processes, logistics and the respective financial movements, all the way up to smart contracts - a process with significant billing advantages, as Maiser explains. However, different versions of the blockchain idea (distributed ledgers), such as Hashgraph, are already entering the market and advertising the fact that significantly more transactions can be carried out much quicker and with less effort. "Blockchain is definitely a relevant technology which will enjoy more widespread use in 2018," Maiser is convinced.
So what is the deal with colonizing Mars? SpaceX founder Elon Musk wants to send the first unmanned flights to the Red Planet in 2022, while the first humans should land on the planet in 2024. However, the American entrepreneur has had to adjust his time schedules for Mars several times already. There are many decisive factors - in addition to the extremely lengthy flight in zero gravity and the costs involved - which are almost impossible to resolve to enable colonization, says Maiser. One problem is that Mars does not have a magnetic field and, without a protective suit, people on the surface would therefore be subjected to cosmic radiation and sun storms around the clock. "Space missions are always interesting as test beds for new applications for mechanical engineers, of course. Even start-ups with micro satellite concepts are fully involved in this area with new business ideas," he says. However, the Head of VDMA Future Business does not see this or the frequently mentioned space tourism developing into a larger business area any time soon. This is something that will likely remain in the realms of science fiction.