05/08/2023 | Digital Innovation
It was almost exactly 53 years ago on April 14, 1970, that the astronaut Jim Lovell uttered five words from 300,000km above the earth that became immortalised as bywords for serious issues. Speaking from the Apollo 13 capsule, he told Nasa’s Mission Control: "Houston, we have a problem" - paraphrasing after being asked to repeat his original message. Immediately, a few dozen flight controllers and engineers were mustered into small rooms at the Johnson Space Centre and given a matter of minutes to find a solution that would bring him and his colleagues home.
Using whatever they had to hand - a piece of hose, a sheet of cardboard, a sock, plastic bags and duct tape - they went on to recreate a lithium hydroxide canister whose effectiveness was vital to maintaining a pure-oxygen environment in the stricken space craft.
Fortunately for the crew, there had been a simulation before the Apollo 8 mission, so the input of those involved was able to add to the impetus. But what it did demonstrate - and has done in full cinematic detail ever since - was the importance, not to mention the logic, of simulation. The scenario was dramatic, although the concept was not new to the scientific community of course. Three years earlier, away from the public gaze, Julian Reitman of the United Aircraft Corporation had published a paper describing his work in simulating manufacturing systems using computers driven by early discreet logic applications. Today, as astronauts ponder the reality of hitherto unimaginable SpaceX Big Falcon and Starship trips to Mars, the world of simulation and fabrication has taken off at an even greater rate, thanks to the sort of technology Reitman’s peers would have seen as science fantasy now being cemented into the heart of all areas of manufacturing planning, quality assurance and process optimisation.
Such systems are found in most production environments; typically helping to anticipate the behaviour of physical systems and review the design and planning data. Automotive companies are a prime example, working hand-in-hand with IT partners on concepts that encompass initial drawings to driving away the finished product.
Similarly, advances in Augmented Reality mean it is now starting to stamp its mark on companies in every industry as well as everything from universities to social enterprises, transforming how we learn, make decisions, and interact with the physical world. It will also change how we serve customers, train employees, design and create products, manage their value chains, and, ultimately, how they compete in the open market.
But there are still technological limitations, thanks to the sometimes poor information flow between the real and virtual worlds. A number of research projects focus on the improvement of planning processes by feeding information on life cycle conditions back to the simulation environment or bringing simulation functionality closer to manufacturing processes.
In a briefing paper entitled "Why Every Organisation Needs an Augmented Reality Strategy", both Michael Porter and James Heppelman described a "fundamental disconnect between the wealth of digital data available to us and the physical world in which we apply it."
But there’s optimism in progress: "While reality is three-dimensional, the rich data we now have to inform our decisions and actions remains trapped on two-dimensional pages and screens."
"This gulf between the real and digital worlds limits our ability to take advantage of the torrent of information and insights produced by billions of smart, connected products (SCPs) worldwide. Augmented reality, a set of technologies that superimposes digital data and images on the physical world, promises to close this gap and release untapped and uniquely human capabilities."
There are many pioneers in play here. AVEVA’s Process Simulation offering adds a layer of agility to the entire process lifecycle of design, simulation, training, and operations to deliver the process side of the Digital Twin and accelerate the engineering cycle. They say: "Engineers can collaborate across disciplines in a single integrated platform to explore all dimensions of a potential design and quantify the impact on sustainability, feasibility, and profitability."
Siemens’ Tecnomatix Plant Simulation 2D and 3D software is yet another case in point, providing discrete event simulation and also statistical analysis capabilities to be able to optimise material handling, logistics, machine utilisation, and labour requirements.
In their words: "Using stochastic tools with object-oriented and 3D modelling capabilities, you can increase your manufacturing accuracy and efficiency while improving throughput and overall system performance. Powerful graphical visualisation, charting and reporting features, genetic algorithms and experimentation tools enable you to evaluate the behaviour of production systems in order to make fast, reliable manufacturing decisions."
A global study conducted in October found that more than eight in 10 of the world’s top 650 executives reported that key business decisions were being made without the advantage of full data visibility and insights from their plants and assets. The companies involved were in the chemicals, manufacturing and power industries across North America, Europe, and the Middle East and each had a minimum annual revenue of €47 million. And it reported that, with no end in sight to global business disruptions, 87 per cent of executives plan to increase their organisation’s investment in industrial digital solutions in 2023, given the need for the type of connected data that can drive decisions.
The greatest investments to tackle supply chain complexities are in analytics and AI, Industrial IoT, cloud computing and edge computing solutions, it said. "Industrial sectors are navigating complex and constantly changing economic challenges, from rising costs to the need to decarbonise to supply chain to labour shortages. With accurate, trusted data, companies can drive actionable insights that enable them to tackle these challenges head-on," said Kim Custeau, Executive Vice President of Portfolio at AVEVA which conducted the study.
"Leading companies are now heavily investing within cloud-based software solutions enriched with sector-specific AI to connect their teams, drive deeper collaboration and build the industries of the future. This gives leaders the agility, resilience, and sustainability capabilities they need to succeed in today’s fast-evolving industrial landscape."
Simulation has come a long way since Apollo. But it has given the story an even more ironic twist. Years ago to mark its 40th anniversary, Analytical Graphics, which provides software for advanced space, defence and intelligence applications, used satellite 'tool kit' software to analyse flight data which questioned the theory that they would circle the earth forever and die from lack of oxygen – and said they'd have found a new orbit 563,000 km in space that would see them plummet to earth and burn up in the atmosphere.
Artificial intelligence has been under the spotlight recently with several leading players in the technology world warning of the dangers society may face if we allow it to encroach into everyday life.
But as one expert told me recently, it’s already touching on so many things we do and, in most cases, it goes completely unnoticed.
"Every day, AI technology is making life more convenient for the average person,” said Brian Sathianathan, CTO of the global software company, iterate ai. “Its purpose is to make technology run smoother, faster and better – optimising everyday processes while continuing to grow to improve more aspects of daily life." He gave these examples:
Threat detection: It is virtual and vigilant at airports, train stations, and government buildings, AI handles security checkpoints, using its ability to recognise faces, bags, and other suspicious belongings.
Licence plate recognition: AI can detect and read plates and check them against a database (in most cases those run by police) to ensure that vehicles are registered properly and not reported stolen.
Heart attack detection: AI via medical devices such as EKG machines is an emerging technology, analysing heart rate, rhythm and other vital signs.
Online shopping: Think of those chatbots you encounter. This is AI technology at work, connecting with you as soon as you enter a website to make your experience better,
answering questions and helping during every moment of the customer experience.
Voice applications: We may take them for granted, but those such as Siri or Alexa are changing the way we communicate with technology. From scheduling appointments to controlling the lights in your house.
The term is thought to have been first used in 1956 at a workshop known as the Dartmouth Conference hosted by John McCarthy and Marvin Minsky, designed to spark discussions about the possibilities lying within the sort of technological advancements pioneered by John Von Neumann and Alan Turing in what was a decade of advancement for computing. Such was that advancement that on 1r years later Minksy was to predicted that in as little as eight years "we will have a machine with the general intelligence of an average human being." The validity of that is a matter for debate but most will recall in 1997, world chess champion Gary Kasparov was beaten by an IBM programme called Deep Blue.
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