The New Face of Machinery – Part 1

July 2016
Peter Thorne

Why build instrumentation and controls into machines if every user will have a tablet or phone?

Just run an app to see the displays and buttons, and operate the machine. 

Of course, manufacturers will have to change their approach to development, operations and service.

Smartphones as controllers…

I remember feeling mildly alarmed during a 2012 research interview with a medical equipment designer.

At that time, her main project was to estimate the potential cost savings of using the electronics and display of smart phones as part of the control system.

The idea was for every user to dock their phone into the equipment.

The design study was looking at:

  • user identification
  • login
  • privacy

My instant reaction was hygiene – this is medical equipment, are those phones clean???
And what about the operating theatre – would there be enough staff with phones to operate all the machines?

Then the security gorilla reared its head – how could anyone be confident the phones were free of malware?

Then also in 2012, I first became aware of Ecomove’s Qbeak  electric vehicle design.  At that time, it used a similar concept.

The driver docks their phone into the car, and the phone becomes:

  • the instrument cluster
  • sat-nav
  • infotainment system

I don’t remember feeling alarmed by the Qbeak.

It’s a few years ago, but I imagine this means the phone did not control the brakes or steering!

New IOT interaction with products

The growth of technologies around the Internet of Things has made these kind of ideas just one part of a whole host of new ways of interacting with all kinds of products.

Figure 1: Jim Heppelmann, CEO of PTC, set out the big picture during his keynote presentation at Liveworx 2016

Let’s try and break that statement down.

Communication with a connected-product can be both ways – in and out.

The communication can be with the product itself, and/or with its digital twin, and/or with some variation of the digital twin or its environment – to try out ‘what-if’ scenarios.

Cloud-connected products can be accessed from any Internet access point.

The interaction can include any or all of the sensor readings and control settings. Data sources and systems external to the product can be fed into the interaction. For example:

  • in a production machine, visibility of customer orders helps
  • for agricultural machines, crop yield histories help farmers to optimize their fertilizer application
  • product sensor readings and cloud-based analytics enable predictive maintenance – the technician arrives with the right spare part just before the problem results in unplanned downtime

So who needs those dials and switches?

One question, though.

If remote control is possible, then what’s the point in having connected product with displays and instruments for local control?

Why not remove these expensive components?

The connectivity will allow any authorised user with the right app on their phone or tablet to stand beside the machine – or indeed, anywhere on the planet – and use the app to check readings and adjust controls.

And the software that provides this capability may offer more than you expect – for example, review of recent control inputs and sensor readings.

Add a touch of augmented reality…

Augmented reality (AR) technologies add information to a live video of a product.

Continue reading


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