Coming Soon: Toys for Embedded Automation

MIT Technology Review's 10 Breakthrough Technologies for 2013 Include Additive Manufacturing and Rethink Robotics' Baxter

By Joe Feeley

MIT Technology Review's new 10 Breakthrough Technologies for 2013 is a coming out party of sorts for marvelous toys that eventually might end up embedded in your automation, in addition to becoming part of everyday life.

Two of them, we talked about earlier in this spot as potential game changers.

SEE ALSO: Automation Advances That Are Shaping the Future

The first is additive manufacturing. We most recently saw this at IMTS 2012, where a number of companies showed off current and future 3-D printing methods. There was no "big" parts capability shown, but the possibilities for making complex parts with no worries about lot sizes were clear. The potential to make big, complex metal and carbon fiber parts that dominate machining in aerospace could have a big impact on traditional, more expensive machining.

MIT Technology Review's Martin LaMonica reports that GE is getting ready to employ 3-D printing to make jet parts. "GE chose the additive process for manufacturing the nozzles because it uses less material than conventional techniques," he writes. "That reduces GE's production costs and, because it makes the parts lighter, yields significant fuel savings for airlines. Conventional techniques would require welding about 20 small pieces together, a labor-intensive process in which a high percentage of the material ends up being scrapped."

LaMonica reports that GE engineers are starting to explore how to use additive manufacturing with a wider range of metal alloys, including some materials specifically designed for 3-D printing. "GE Aviation, for one, is looking to use titanium, aluminum and nickel-chromium alloys," he writes. "A single part could be made of multiple alloys, letting designers tailor its material characteristics in a way that's not possible with casting. A blade for an engine or turbine, for example, could be made with different materials so that one end is optimized for strength and the other for heat resistance."

There still are plenty of growing pains with this. The powdered metal products properties currently don't compare well to high-end machined metal, but if the production process moves at the speed I think is possible, we might be surprised how fast the materials keep pace.

The second "breakthrough" is Baxter, that $22,000, two-arm, kind of human-acting, big-eyed assembly line replacement worker, robot from Rethink Robotics.

When I visited with them at Automate 2013, the designers spoke to the aim of the robot to do mundane, repetitive jobs, bringing employers back to the U.S. with the more-skilled jobs that would accompany them.

The article helps explain Rethink's low-cost, safe design that gets along well with humans.

You'll find the remaining eight technologies, one of which touts ABB's high-voltage DC circuit breaker that removes some of the limits that DC power has faced to be part of a power grid.

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