“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”
Leon C. Megginson
We have always tried to look at the big picture and to synthesize the macro trends related to our business. Sometimes, due to the constant information flow, it is difficult to separate reality from advertising. The focus on the major trend has helped us understand the dynamic environment around us and has allowed us to make better strategic decisions related to our business. If one anticipates the inevitable changes, he will have much more time to create an appropriate strategy, to plan and adapt his business or career accordingly.
Arguably the most visible process in our engineering sector is the advance of automation and digitalization in manufacturing. This trend is essential for our business as an engineering company because we solve manufacturing problems with automation and digitalization. We need to know what are the main drivers of this trend, its strength, and the fundamental condition that allow it to happen right now.
We have been accumulating a lot of information in the past few years – from external sources and our own projects. Since we are solving complex manufacturing problems, often we need to use the existing technologies up to their limits. That is why we need to know the limits and likely developments of the technologies that we use.
This information could be interesting and valuable to people working in manufacturing. We have decided to organize it and share it in a few articles. The information is focused on the major trends that are unlikely to change over the next decade. Therefore, the articles should be valid a few years from now. I hope that you find them interesting and useful.
We have observed that there are three major forces that drive the increasing use of smart automation and digitalization trend in manufacturing. Those are:
Smart automation and digitalization are expected to help manufacturing companies improve their productivity and quality, slash costs, and increase flexibility. Еven more important – they will increase the rate of improvements and innovations. However, the current marketing campaigns are so intense, that one could easily believe that the future will be so radically different that if a modern manufacturing expert walks into a factory of the future, he will not recognize what is going on.
We do not know what will happen in the far future and no one really knows. However, we are certain that in our life changes will look more like accelerated evolution, rather than a sudden revolution. The first reason is that there are some basic principles in manufacturing that have been the same since the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s. They will remain the same as long as manufacturing is a physical process that produces goods out of raw materials. You can read more about the principles of manufacturing in our article. The second reason is that the manufacturing sector is more conservative in using new technologies that are not dependable or well-tested. And many of the newest technologies are just like that.
However, even if not so radical, the impact of the changes will be significant. Smart automation and digitalization will grant strong competitive advantages to certain economies or companies. They will create more opportunities for growth, innovation, and improvements. Those that are already investing and exploring new possibilities will survive and prosper in a changing world economy. In contrast, companies that have not already grasped this trend will have a hard time. That is why we hope to see more Bulgarian and European companies investing in smart automation and digitization.
“We are indeed in the early stages of a major technological transformation, one that is far more sweeping than the most ecstatic yet realize… Three hundred years of technology came to an end after World War II. During those three centuries, the model for technology was a mechanical one: the events that goes inside a star such as the sun. The period began when an otherwise almost unknown French physicist, Denis Papin, envisaged the steam engine around 1680. They ended when we replicated with the nuclear explosions the events inside a star. For these three centuries advance in technology meant – as it does in mechanical processes – more speed, higher temperatures, higher pressures. Since the end of the World War II, however, the model of technology has become the biological process, the events inside an organism. And in an organism, processes are not organized around energy in the physicist’s meaning of the term. They are organized around information.”
Peter Drucker, 1985, “Innovation and Entrepreneurship”
The ongoing technological development is the first mega force that drives the increasing adoption of automation and digitalization in manufacturing. The technological advances make technological solutions simultaneously more powerful and affordable. As a result, this increases their usefulness and investment attractiveness. In this article, we will cover the impact of increasing computing power on technological advances. They will have an impact on the manufacturing industry over the next 5 to 10 years. We will also explain why we have singled out the increasing computing power as the most important current technological advancement.
We live in the information age since the end of the Second World War. Since the creation of the first computer, computing power has been growing by an extraordinary 35% annually. It has become the main driver of technological change. One of the founders of the chip-maker Intel, Gordon Moore, has first observed this trend in 1965. He noticed that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit (IC) doubles about every two years, while the price for computers is halved. This observation is known as “Moore’s law”.
The increase of computing power has led to the creation of many new technologies such as the electronic general-purpose digital computer, the internet and millions of websites, all kinds of software – from accounting software to games and computer-aided design (CAD) software, smartphones, and other portable computers, impressive special effects, and 3D animation, digital photography, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, computer numerical control (CNC) and robotics, self-driving cars and many, many more technologies. It also changed to a great extent the way we communicate and socialize, shop, and work.
This next graphic shows the exponential growth of cheap computing power. In computing, floating-point operations per second (FLOPS, flops, or flop/s) is a measure of computer performance, useful in fields of scientific computations that require floating-point calculations.
The computing power growth is very impressive in comparison with the standard rate of improvements in more mature technologies. For example, technologies such as airplanes and pumps improve by 1% to 3% annually. The following two examples are a perfect illustration of the two figures above.
The first example compares the first electronic general-purpose digital computer ENIAC built in 1945 with a remake made 50 years later in 1996:
ENIAC had 17 648 vacuum tubes of 16 different kinds (as well as tens of thousands of resistors, capacitors, manual switches, and relays) total volume of 80 m3 (footprint of 167 m2 or roughly two badminton courts) and with power supply and air cooling it weighted about 30 t. About 90% of operating interruptions were due to recurrent tube failures necessitating laborious maintenance and replacement (the checking routine alone took about 8 hours).
Half a century later, ENIAC was reconstructed on 7.4 x 5.3 mm silicon microchip that contained 174,569 transistors: their total was ten times larger than the original count of the vacuum tubes, because the transistors also replaced all resistors, capacitors and other components. ENIAC was more than 5 million times heavier, it consumed about 40,000 more electricity, but its speed was no more than 0,002% that of the reconstructed processor (100 kHz vs 50 Mhz), all of it thanks to solid-state electronics and its continuous advances.
The second example highlights the immense computing power we have available today:
The Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) on board the lunar module (LM) executed instructions at a speed of about 40 KHz (or 0.00004 GHz), about 100,000 times slower than a high-end laptop today. There was also a similar real-time computer built into the Saturn V rocket. On the ground, NASA had access to some of the most powerful computers of the day: five IBM model 360/75 mainframe computers, each about 250 times faster than the AGC. They were running nearly 24/7, calculating lift-off data and orbits, monitoring biomedical data during the mission, and performing numerous other calculations.
We compared that to what Google does today, and we found that:
It takes about the same amount of computing to answer one Google Search query as all the computing done — in flight and on the ground — for the entire Apollo program!
Every year since 2001, MIT Technology Review has chosen the ten most important breakthrough technologies of the year. It is a list of technologies that, almost without exception, are possible only because of the computation advances described by Moore’s Law. The majority of the current technological developments in industrial automation are also based on computation and software advances. Even the “traditional” technologies, benefit from the increasingly powerful programmable logic controller (PLC), industrial PCs, computer numerical control (CNC) devices, and the corresponding software.
There are many new or improved technologies that we expect to see more often in factories or supply chains in the near future, such as:
There are many more technologies than that and the list is constantly changing and growing. However, most probably those are the new technologies that will have the biggest impact on the manufacturing world in the next 5 to 10 years. The reason is that they impact the majority of the current problems that exist in manufacturing.
The biggest impact, however, could be achieved by combining those technologies. This concept is commonly labeled as The Fourth Industrial Revolution or Industry 4.0. It is the ongoing automation of traditional manufacturing and industrial practices, using modern smart technology. According to its proponents, in the future, we shall see large-scale machine-to-machine communication through industrial control systems that will achieve increased automation, improved communication, and self-monitoring. In manufacturing, there will be many smart machines that can analyze and diagnose issues without the need for human intervention. Furthermore, they foresee fusion between the physical and the digital worlds. This will help us run the manufacturing process much more efficiently than today.
We will not discuss Industry 4.0 in detail because there is a lot of information written on the topic on the internet. Instead, we will focus on two technologies with which we are most familiar – industrial robots and industrial control systems. Those key technologies will surely see increased adoption in Bulgaria and across the globe in the following years due to their increasing usefulness, applicability, and return on investment.
Moore’s law is not a natural law. It is just an observation of reality. Many experts, including Gordon Moore, expect that at some point in time, the growth will slow down and even stop. The reason is that there is a physical barrier to how small transistors can become. Currently, they are so small that they approach the sizes of a few atoms. Some even claim that Moore’s law is not valid anymore. They point out signs that the growth of computing power has slowed down.
However, according to Intel, this is not true and will not happen in the next 10 years, because there is still room for innovations such as new architectures and transistor designs. Also, there will be room for further improvement of computational performance through better software, algorithms, and specialized chip architecture. For example, one opportunity is in slimming down so-called software bloat to get the most out of existing chips. So far, with the ever-increasing abundance of computing power, programmers didn’t need to worry much about writing more efficient code.
Experiments done by MIT researchers have shown that one could get a computationally intensive calculation to run some 47 times faster just by switching from Python, a popular general-purpose programming language, to the more efficient C. That’s because C, while it requires more work from the programmer, greatly reduces the required number of operations, making a program run much faster. Further tailoring the code to take full advantage of a chip with 18 processing cores sped things up even more. In just 0.41 seconds, the researchers got a result that took seven hours with Python code.
Last but not least, there is quantum computing that is still in the very early stages of its development. Quantum computers are believed to be able to solve certain computational problems, substantially faster than classical computers. This will extend the validity of Moore’s law even further.
Our personal observation is that industrial automation is usually lagging behind in development in comparison with the general trends. Both vendors and customers are more conservative and prefer well-tested and proven technologies. The reason is that usually, it is related to huge investments in hardware that is difficult or expensive to change if something does not work as anticipated. Furthermore, many of the existing limitations such as hardware or software incompatibility, are a result of commercial and licensing decisions by vendors. They are not a real technological limitation. Last, but not least, there is still huge room for software development and improvement.
So even if Moore’s law stops being applicable today, the technological development in the manufacturing sector will not be severely affected in the next 20 to 30 years. By the time when does effect withers out, most of the people in our generation will have retired. And who knows, by that time there might be new technological breakthroughs that are unknown to us today.
Read part 2: Advanced Industrial robots