Here in Rochester, as we enter the official start of winter, we are experiencing the weather conditions that herald the season of chill: short days, snowy fields, nasty driving conditions, and festive holiday lights that attempt to take our minds off of all that has gone into hibernation.
Optimists will enthusiastically talk about the things they enjoy doing in winter that they can’t partake of during spring and summer (skiing, snowboarding, hockey and ice skating, etc.). It’s like they maintain 2 sets of hobbies and change them like donning a parka and set of mittens. Then there are those of us who look out the window at a landscape buried under drifts, and lament what we aren’t able to enjoy until spring comes and dispels the winter gloom.
I tend to be in the latter group; I recently drove by our croquet courts (did I mention that competitive croquet is one of my favorite pastimes?) and tried to imagine if the game could be played on top of the layer of snow and sleet. Probably not…but if we can’t play the game, maybe the off-season time is best spent thinking about and working towards improving our game for next year.
This line of thinking, including the concepting of potential new game strategies, tools, and execution tactics, converged in an interesting way with some of the forward thinking we are doing at Optimation in our business as we look at and concept ways to address emerging manufacturing trends. And one trend that is on the rise is automation utilizing robots.
In recent years, robots have come of age. That is, with the advances in computers, software, and motion control, buying a machine that comes prepackaged with the ability to easily be applied to tasks like part handling, assembly, painting, etc. has never been more cost effective. We are on the cusp of having a powerful solution waiting for users to bring forward their manufacturing challenges, such that the robot technology can be effectively applied.
That said, you may ask how I connected robots to croquet? Well, croquet is an intriguing blend of mechanical (or should I day hand to eye) skills and mental acuity. The proficient player needs to understand the state and positions of his balls as well as those of his opponent, plus then be able to execute his moves by striking his ball accurately. The connection would be the swing of the croquet mallet: My play tends to be erratic largely due to the fact that I am not able to strike my ball consistently on the right line, and with the correct amount of energy, to accomplish my intentions during a turn ( hit another ball, or score a wicket, etc.). If a robot could be tooled up to grip a croquet mallet, it is not much of a stretch to envision that we cold program the mallet swing produced by the robot such that the ball when hit would go where we intend it to go much more repeatedly than I am able to do, strike after strike.
This would be an interesting, if not impractical, engineering exercise. In principle, the idea of a perfect, robot produced croquet swing, is entirely feasible (not unlike a pitching machine in a batting practice cage). However, I did characterize the sport of croquet as requiring both good hand to eye/mechanical skills, plus good mental capabilities. The mental side of the game speaks not only to strategy (for example, does one attack or lay back and wait for an opponent to make a mistake that can be capitalized on) but also tactics (taking advantage of an opponent’s deadness, for example). What we would have to be able to do would be to also teach/program the robot with not only the mechanical aspects (swing line and force) but the decision processes based on game condition inputs that would lead to which ball to hit where, and how hard, to what purpose.
The analogy I am drawing here is that there would be a need to have a croquet expert available to help us with the robot programming, who would know the rules of the game, plus things like typical strategies and tactics, that would be built into our robot software/decision hierarchy. This is exactly the same challenge we have in industry: If we want to apply robots to specific manufacturing processes, a necessary ingredient for a successful project is a subject matter expert (SME) with process knowledge and experience to help program the robot.
At Optimation, we are approaching the robotic based manufacturing opportunities we are pursuing with both robot programming skills AND process subject matter expertise. We are persuaded that these are the two key ingredients to success in implementing this emerging technology.