you chat, wechat, we all chat in the factory of the future

in rethinking robotics by Sean Lorenz

Collecting data from equipment such as collaborative robots in the factory of the future thanks to the industrial IoT (IIoT).

The factory of the near future will soon be collecting data from all of its equipment, industrial robots, and even collaborative robots. Why? There is the obvious IIoT benefit of predictive maintenance, but we can now also reduce reliance on PLCs, connect with ERP, MES and CRM systems or tackle zero downtime and overall equipment effectiveness. Let’s bring social IoT into the equation to see how this could practically come together.

A collaborative robot such as Sawyer could be rolled over to a workcell on the production in order to perform a task. A Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) sensor on the robot might be used for location awareness in order to ask via beacons who else is in the proximity. If any other local thing raises its hand such as a conveyor belt, industrial label printer, PLC or other connected Thing, then predefined relationships can determine how a “social network” is created to perform a certain task. For example, if Sawyer knows that a conveyor belt, pallet and labeler are in the same workcell, then it might automatically deduct that it’s being set up to perform a packaging task. The context of Sawyer’s location on the production line along with the ability to collaborate with other discovered things with certain relationship properties makes it easy for them all to communicate to get something done.

Now let’s pan out from the workcell into the factory as a whole. Real-time information on robot and equipment interaction can now give the production manager, plant manager, COO and other team members new insights on the factory floor. But how do people interact with the things? Up until now we’ve talked only about thing-to-thing interaction. What about person-to-thing relationships?

Social platforms such as WeChat are already capitalizing on the idea of adding IoT context to its app. WeChat users can already check their blood sugar levels with monitoring devices or check their daily steps with Garmin wearables. Garmin's fitness tracker Vívosmart can integrate with WeChat, sharing information two-ways between both the tracker and the phone.How could this type of social interaction work between connected equipment and people working on the factory floor? WeChat or another mobile app could be developed to alert line workers when a nearby device is about to malfunction or a part coming off the line was assembled incorrectly.

Instead of constantly looking up to Andon tower lights for alerts and issues, employees could also alert each other of issues via a connected app on the factory floor. Line workers can also input production counts in the app instead of writing a number on a whiteboard that is tallied every day into an Excel sheet. Once relationships between people, robots, things and business systems within a factory are established, the number of ways in which knowledge can be shared grows exponentially.

As a collaborative robotics company, Rethink naturally sees two-way communication between all the parties mentioned above as the promise of IoT and robot-human collaboration in the factory. In the not-so-distant future, instead of factory workers interacting in a solely one-way fashion with robots and equipment, soon these things will learn details about their contextual states in order to intelligently “talk” back and forth with us.

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About the Author

Sean Lorenz

Sean has worked on several Internet of Things and robotics startups over the past decade, and somehow snuck onto a Top 100 IoT Influencers list. He has a PhD in Cognitive & Neural Systems and loves to ponder what a smarter, more connected Sawyer might look like one day.

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