Virtual and augmented reality headsets seemed to be at every booth this year. For some exhibitors, they were a way to demonstrate their software power, for others, a clever lure to pull in attendees. A few companies, though, really nailed the full impact these technologies are about to have on the industry and offered attendees a first taste of what's to come.
In the Microsoft booth, two Mercedes trainers were on hand to demonstrate how the company uses the Hololens augmented reality glasses to train employees on complicated assembly processes.
What we see in this picture is an empty brake assembly. Through the glasses, however, we saw a full list of instructions, glowing spots of concern, and the full brake construction, real as real, floating magically in space.
With that help, we walked through the entire brake change operation in about 3 minutes—about 2 hours and 57 minutes faster than my usual time.
Virtual Train Mechanic
Microsoft also went full virtual at its booth, dropping me into a new world and a new job as a train repairman. It serves powerful tool that provides a world of actual mechanics the opportunity to understand the step-by-step techniques and requirements for a new job before they ever meet a real train.
Augmented Picking Pro
While I was at it, I went ahead and got a job as a picker, too, at the Upskill booth.
This one was a bit different, though—whereas the Microsoft demos were about providing thorough training and step-by-step instructions, the Upskill crew just strapped a pair of Vuzix smart glasses to my face and a scanner to my fist and set me to work without any instructions at all.
Within seconds, the whole process became perfectly obvious and I quickly became a picking expert without a single lesson.
Repeat of the same for this wiring demo. Simple, efficient: the whole future all spelled out for us.
3-D Printing is far from new, of course, and the applications and displays in this year's show demonstrate just now mature it has become. It is still just on the fringes of the manufacturing mainstream, but it is inching its way in, one innovation at a time.
Case in point: 3-D Systems shows off a batch of "mass produced" metal aerospace components.
Mass Production (2)
A closer look at the intricate details the technology allows.
3-D Printing the High Seas
Still metal printing, but on a totally different scale: Autodesk showed off the 3-D printed metal propeller produced by the Rotterdam Additive Manufacturing Fieldlab. The technology allows the team to repair and replace pieces of a propeller far faster than traditional production methods. It looks rough at first, but once the metal is deposited, it is machines into perfection, ready to set sail.
Have a Seat
Another project at the Autodesk booth showed equally impressive potential... and took a totally different route. Designed for 3-D printing, this airplane seat frame is 56% lighter than traditional designs—enough to account for about $100,000 in fuel savings per jet per year.
However, the frame is not actually 3-D printed. To avoid the lengthy certification process required by the aerospace industry for such changes, the team 3-D printed the mold for the complex design instead, and then cast the piece through traditional means. Same weight savings, same novel design, plus high(er) speed production, all without the certification requirements.
3-D Printed Clothes?
On the other side of the industrial world, Stratasys showed off this piece of 3-D printed lace, which seemed as lightweight and flexible as any traditional fabric. Perfection of this print could lead to a whole new world of innovation and disruption.
So, EOS printed a titanium octopus. It's beautiful and magical and I want it.
Inside the Box Innovation
Here, Keyence demos a powerful application: open channels designed into the 3-D print provide a previously unimaginable plumbing network in an otherwise solid piece.
Hannover Messe in a Nutshell
This exhibit described the state of the industrial tech industry perfectly.
A Universal Robots cobot arm picked the appropriate 3-D printed pieces for a custom pair of sunglasses from the bins and slid them into position, while a pair of smartglasses fed me step-by-step instructions for their assembly.
That's three impossibly cool technologies working together to create one pair of impossibly cool shades.
Hopefully Not Foreshadowing
Lesson learned: Choose your 3-D printer material carefully. Function over form, people.
Robots & Automation
The most exciting thing to happen in robotics over the last five years is how commonplace they have become. Whether they are self-driving material handling bots, cobots, or full-on androids, these sci-fi pipedreams have become ubiquitous tools of the trade.
Robo Case in Point
Six years ago, collaborative robots had the manufacturing world absolutely spooked. Today, they are serving ice cream in the Kuka booth.
Robo Case in Point 2
And what was once possible only in cartoons, hardly draws a crowd today.
What it all Means
Mix all of these innovations, the quick proliferation of these technologies, and a few truly extraordinary ideas, and you get something like this.
Festo's BionicWorkplace is a "self-learning workplace" that mixes artificial intelligence, wearables, voice controls, and collaborative robots for the most sci-fi industrial set up yet. The robot arm mimics the worker's movements, while the desk and screen obey his every request through simple, natural dialog.
Most of what I saw at the show was a continuation of previous progress. Software is getting smarter, analytics is getting deeper, 3-D printing is getting more robust, robots are getting cheaper and more reliable. And behind it all, of course, the power of connectivity and the IIoT just grows and grows.
There was one new element here, however, that did present something new—something that promises to change our basic understanding of engineering and design.
Today, of course, engineers to all of the creative, problem-solving design work on a new component or product and then makes a record of the solution in CAD.
Generative design flips the role of the traditional design process. With it, the designer just describes the needs of a part or piece, and the system does the rest, running through hundreds or thousands of iterations in seconds to find the most ideal solution.
The Old Block
Here, a piece created the old-fashioned way shows the simple designs we generally see—blockish, heavy, easily machined, and purely functional.
A Chip Off
And here is that same piece reimagined by generative design. Here, the engineers simply told the system where the screw holes had to be (and, presumably, the pieces functional requirements) and it spit out an entirely new design that is 50% lighter.