From Sci-Fi to Reality

April 14, 2021
Real-life alternate realities and lightsabers yield benefits for manufacturers.
Scientists and technologists have long acknowledged the influence of science fiction on their careers. The sliding doors and cell phones of the 1960s Star Trek series are often cited as examples, as is the appearance of video calling in Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic Metropolis. Here, Claudia Jarrett, US country manager at automation parts supplier EU Automation, gives five examples of industrial automation technology that were once science fiction, but are now a reality.

We could all do with some inspiration when attempting to solve complex problems. Fortunately, science fiction can be a great way of stimulating creative thinking and approaching common issues. So much, in fact, that the University of Hawaii even conducted a survey to better understand the ways fiction influences the development of new technologies.

So, which of today’s leading manufacturing technologies can be traced back to sci-fi literature, movies or even comic books—and what do they suggest for the future of manufacturing?

From Factory to Autofac

American author Philip K. Dick’s 1995 short story Autofac describes a world dominated by self-replicating robots. For FANUC, the automation and robotics company, self-replicating robots are a reality at its plant in Oshino, Japan.

There, all aspects of the production of robots are taken care of by other robots—from assembly, testing, and packaging to shipment and delivery. According to reports, the robots reproduce at a rate of 50 per 24-hour shift and can run unsupervised for up to 30 days—they have become the very essence of light-out production.

Hopefully, unlike in Autofac, the robots won’t take over the planet and deplete its resources!

Exoskeleton Staff

The Iron Man suit of armor, created by the fictional billionaire, Tony Stark, has been lighting up multiplex cinema screens for the past decade.

Stark’s armor supposedly raises his lifting capacity by around 85 times and in reality, exoskeletons are giving factory and warehouse workers super strength too. The difference? These suits are used to lift heavy weights for up to eight hours a day without risking strain or injury, rather than save the world.

Among them is Sarcos Robotics’ Guardian XO full-body exoskeleton, the world's first battery-powered industrial robot to combine human intelligence with machine precision. For its wearer, the exoskeleton can reportedly make 100 pounds feel like just five. Just as the Iron Man suit is loaded with smart technologies, sensors in the Guardian XO’s chest and shoulders allow it to adapt to the wearers’ body and support their weight to prevent stumbling, falling or similar accidents.

Another example is the Paexo Shoulder. The passive exoskeleton supports people who carry out physically demanding tasks with their arms raised on a daily basis, reducing muscle activity in construction workers by 33%.

According to 360iResearch, battery-powered exoskeletons sales are set to grow exponentially above non-battery powered by the end of 2025.

Not-So-Evil Twin

Parallel universes, or alternate realities, have long been a trope of science fiction. The Netflix series Stranger Things depicts a dystopic parallel universe called the Upside-Down, Star Trek has its own Mirror Universe and— perhaps the most famous of them all — is the Wizard of Oz’s magical Technicolour realm, the Land of Oz.

Rather than alternative realities, we now use augmented realities (AR) in manufacturing. According to the recent PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) report, Digital Factories 2020: Shaping the future of manufacturing, AR solutions like digital twins could help employees build zero-defect products. A digital twin is a virtual representation of a factory that allows companies to test new manufacturing processes, risk-free.

The idea of virtual production with 3D simulation may sound like something out of a video game, but these simulations can prove vital in determining what could go wrong before the physical plant is even built.

Digital twins are currently used in a variety of design engineering applications, as well as in construction. Proponents of the technology, like SMS Group, a plant supplier to the metallurgical industry, claim that digital twins combined with automation can reduce plant commissioning times by up to 30%.

Elsewhere, Lundin Norway, the oil and gas exploration and production company, reported that the use of a digital twin from the plant supplier Honeywell, helped it lower its energy usage by $1.23 million per year and reduce its CO2 emissions by 5.6 KMt/year. That’s the equivalent of removing 1200 average-sized US automobiles from the roads.

Cutting to the Chase

No delve into the history of science fiction would be complete without a reference to Star Wars. In this case, lightsabers, the iconic sword-like weapons wielded by the movie series’ brave Jedi Knights.

While the glowing blades of lightsabers contain enough energy to easily cut through metal, real-life industrial plasma cutters share similar characteristics. Plasma, or the fourth state of matter, is created through ionization—stripping a gas's atoms of its electrons—which causes the material to glow. Because plasma conduces electricity, it can convey a large electrical current to the target material, heating it up to the point of cutting it. 

What sounds like sci-fi is anything but, as discovered by Hutchinson Manufacturing, a large ISO 9001 compliant custom metal fabricator. The company’s outdated cutting technology—comprising two ten-year-old CO2 lasers and a 20-year-old ESAB Sabre plasma gantry—was driving its outsourcing costs to over $220,000 in two years. So, the company upgraded to a CNC cutting machine equipped with a HyPerformance Plasma HPR400XD, a plasma system designed and built for maximum performance and productivity in x-y, bevel, and robotic cutting operations. 

The company reported cutting speed improvements of two to three times over its old, outdated lasers—along with the savings of $220,000. However, a downside is that two magnetically contained tubes of plasma would pass right through each other, making it impossible to engage in an epic lightsaber battle.

These examples prove that things we once thought impossible are yielding tangible benefits for manufacturers, the world over. There’s no easy way of predicting what the next big futuristic idea might be, but to stay updated with the latest innovations in automation and manufacturing, you can always visit EU Automation’s Knowledge Hub