Failure of a machine in a factory can shut it down. Lost production can cost tens of millions of dollars per day. Component failures can devastate factories, power plants and battlefield equipment.

To return to operation, expert technicians use all of the tools of their kit – machining, bending, welding and surface treating, making just the best part as quickly and as accurately as possible. But there’s a declining variety of technicians with the best skills, and the standard of things made by hand is subject to the abilities and mood of the artisan on the day the part is made.

Both problems could soon be solved by artificially intelligent robotic technicians. These systems can take measurements; shape, cut or weld parts using varied tools; pass parts to specialized equipment; and even purchase needed materials – all without human intervention. Known as hybrid autonomous manufacturing, this process involves automated systems that seamlessly use multiple tools and techniques to construct high-quality components where and after they are needed.

I’m a professor of metallurgical engineering. My colleagues and I design the recipes to make materials and components with just the best internal structure to create properties like strength and fracture resistance. With a network of colleagues at Ohio State and other universities, I even have been developing a plan to provide birth to those autonomous artisans.

How things are made

Components are either mass-produced or custom-made.

Most things people touch day by day have been mass-produced. Quality is assured by utilizing well-honed processes based on testing and monitoring large numbers of parts and assuring the method is completed the identical way each time.

Custom fabrication – making components on demand – is commonly essential, sometimes to evolve to a patient’s specific anatomy or to switch aircraft landing gear that was forged and isn’t any longer being made. Processes for making metallic parts – material removal, deposition, deformation, transformation, inspection – can all be done with small tools, with incremental actions reasonably than the type of bulk processes, often with big tools and dies, utilized in mass production.

Automation has long been a component of mass production, which incorporates sophisticated robots that handle parts and weld on automobile assembly lines. Additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, is increasingly getting used with quite a lot of materials to make components.

Now in development are robotic blacksmiths – robots that may hammer metallic parts into shape as an alternative of cutting, increase or molding them.

Robots have been constructing cars for many years, but they typically perform easy, repetitive tasks that don’t require decision-making.
Lenny Kuhne/Unsplash

Automated customization – not an oxymoron

To automate custom fabrication, my colleagues and I are developing an automatic suite of tools that may perform all of the steps for making a wide selection of components, using multiple processes without human intervention. Sensors can even be central to hybrid autonomous manufacturing to manage the processes and maintain and assure quality.

Such autonomous manufacturing systems will make the myriad decisions needed to create a component of the best strength, size and surface finish. Artificial intelligence might be required to handle the big variety of selections of materials, machine settings and process sequences. Rather than finding a mass production recipe and never deviating, these autonomous manufacturing systems will select from a really large set of possible recipes to create parts, and could have the intelligence to guarantee that the chosen path produces components with the suitable material properties.

Robots could either position small tools on manufactured component or transfer the component from one piece of apparatus to a different. A totally autonomous system could manufacture a wide selection of products with a flexible set of tools. The systems could source materials and possibly even send work out to specialized cutting and deformation tools, identical to a human artisan.

The production rate of such systems wouldn’t rival those of mass production, but because robots can work repeatedly they will be more productive than human technicians are. Data from sensors provide a digital record of all of the steps and processes with critical temperatures, machine settings and even images. This record can assure quality by, for instance, ensuring the fabric was deformed the best amount and cracks weren’t produced in the course of the process and covered up.

An X-ray of a knee shows elaborate hardware including four long screws in the lower bone and a series of staples near the hardware
Surgeons sometimes need to double as metalworkers when coping with bad fractures.
PEDRE/E+ via Getty Images

Manufacturing at or near the operating room is one example of a process that will be enabled with hybrid autonomous manufacturing. Often when patients with bone fractures undergo trauma surgery, metallic plates of various shapes are required to carry bones together for healing. These are sometimes created within the operating room, where the surgeon bends plates to suit the patient, sometimes using a 3D-printed model created from medical images of the patient as a form to bend the metal against.

Bending by hand is slow and imprecise, and stressing the plate within the unsuitable place may cause it to fracture. A robotic technician could cut and bend and finish a plate before surgery. Patients do higher and lower your expenses in the event that they spend less time within the hospital.

The road to robotic artisans

Numerous firms are actually showing the way in which forward in autonomous manufacturing, including three venture-funded startups. FormLogic is developing automated high-quality machine shops. Path Robotics is putting the abilities of a welder right into a robot. And Machina Labs is out to create robotic blacksmiths. Other firms are developing systems to automate design and logistics.

Hybridization – the power to perform different tasks in other ways with multiple tools – is the following step. The key pieces of hybrid autonomous manufacturing exist now, and fully autonomous systems may very well be common in a decade. Companies adopting this approach to custom fabrication might want to draw on a brand new generation of scholars with the abilities to mix these technologies.

The investments proposed within the United States Innovation and Competition Act passed by the Senate on June 8, 2021, and people within the Biden administration’s proposed American Jobs Plan could support the event of those sorts of advanced manufacturing technologies. Funds for the event of advanced manufacturing technologies and the associated skills base could make U.S. manufacturing more competitive.

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