Speaking over the buzz and whirr of 3D printers and robotic arms at the MACH 2018 exhibition at the NEC in Birmingham, engineer Andrew Banks from software verification and compliance firm LDRA urged caution as companies embrace automation and artificial intelligence.
Admitting he was “a little more to the cynical end” than others in the British Standards Institution panel discussion, Banks said manufacturers risk stepping backwards on vital qualifications, which ensure that repeatable robotic tasks always happen safely.
“We’ve been using robots in manufacturing for a good many years to do the nitty-gritty, the repeatable tasks where getting things exactly the same is so important,” he said. “Once we start introducing robots that can ‘think’ for themselves, we are undoing a lot of the process development that we spent a lot of years getting right.”
Comparing the risk of autonomy in factories to the recent self-driving crashes in the US, he told the crowd of manufacturing workers and bosses: “Tread with caution. There is some very useful technology there but be careful – as a developer, as an adopter – don’t rush in to adopt things before they are ready.”
Human-designed factory processes are generally straightforward and therefore receive safety certification quickly, said Oxford University's Dr Stephen Cameron. The veteran researcher claimed that certification for AI-run systems will slow down the technology’s uptake in manufacturing.
“The whole thing about systems that can learn, or are autonomous, or artificially intelligent, is they will do things you never thought of when you built it,” he said. “We haven’t got the foggiest idea yet about how to deal with those sorts of systems.”
However, Drone Major Group chief executive Robert Garbett highlighted the intense work being done to develop standards at national and international level. The standards, among other things, are aimed at protecting workers from industrial accidents involving autonomous systems.
“That is happening in the background,” he said. “There are concerns about full automation and it is my opinion that true automation will never really be achieved, because you always have to have a human in the loop, you have to have the off switch.”
Nonetheless, Garbett and the rest of the panel were firm in their belief that much greater autonomy is inevitable in manufacturing, and human roles on the shop floor will be supplanted by higher-level engineering or design roles. He also urged interested companies to engage with the development of standards to shape the future of the industry.
Each of the panellists also agreed that skills needed for the higher-level roles are another serious issue that must be addressed, with universities and companies told to step up – but also parents, to encourage children to engage with coding from a young age.
“Autonomous systems and artificial intelligence are here to stay,” said Microsoft’s director of industry solutions, Ruptesh Pattanayak. “Manufacturers around the globe would really do well to quickly start understanding and investing in this… they have to understand that they have the right pipeline of skills coming in.”
Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.