Many profound statements of the past have turned out in the due course of history to become points of humor as technology broke old molds and shifted our paradigms. This phenomena has happened in all areas of technology so it is not surprising to find a generous supply of these profound humorous statements associated with the computer industry. Examples are "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers"...Thomas Watson, 1943; or "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in his/her home"...Ken Olsen, 1977; or "640K ought to be enough for anybody"...Bill Gates, 1981.
Certainly, the machine control industry has not been exempt from this phenomena either. Leaders within the industry have created their share of profound statements that have been made humorous by progress in technology. You may have heard some of the following statements, repeated them, or you may have even been the originator of one or more of them:
- Floppy disk drives have no place in the shop. The heat and contamination make them totally useless.
- Hard disks could never withstand the harsh shop environment they would be subjected to if they were used in machine tool control systems.
- Does an operator really need a color monitor on a control system?
- Use standard PC components in a machine tool?—it will never work.
- Who would ever want to connect a machine to the Internet?
- Tape readers are forever.
- Touch screens will never replace industrial push buttons.
There is little doubt that we are going to continue to make profound statements about machine controls that are turned into jokes by technology. What are those areas of technology that will cause significant paradigm shift in the next ten years making us vulnerable to humorous statements? There are some that are obvious, where the technology trend has already started the shift. Others are not so obvious and will require some thought and speculation. Let me propose a few areas that are good candidates for change due to emerging technology.
The way we communicate with control systems (the human interface) could undergo some startling changes in the next ten years. Push buttons, keyboards, and touch screens could all give way to voice commands. Continuous voice-recognition systems already exist throughout the computer industry making the Star Trek scene where Spock converses with the Star Ship's computer a reality. Imagine speaking to your CNC machine and telling it what part to make next. Or asking it if it has all the tools it needs to make the part, or telling it to "hold" while you check the cutter. This technology is already well established in the telephone and banking industries so it's only a matter of time until it is carried over into the mainstream desktop computing and then its only a short step into PC-based machine controls.
One of the central concepts of Agile manufacturing has been to empower the workers by allowing them to be more effective in carrying out assigned tasks. When you look at an empowered worker, combined with a PC-based CNC machine connected to a network, you see all the characteristics of an "autonomous agent" as defined under the Chaos theory. And, with the creation of Sun Microsystem's Inc. Java technology comes distributed technology. Whenever the Java virtual machine is embedded in computer systems and other devices, and they are all connected to a network, both code and data can move across these devices regardless of their native platforms. And, most recently Sun's Jini technology, built on the Java platform, has arrived to bring to reality the vision of distributed computing. If this technology were applied to a PC-based CNC what a powerful autonomous agent you could have.
What else is out there in the shop that we now take for granted and assume will not change? CRT displays could give way to retina projection devices or to virtual reality head sets. Or how about machine application engineering becoming as simple as selecting the right machine driver package like you do when you install a printer on a PC? With all of the exciting new technology waiting to be put into use, it makes you want to be a little more careful about making profound statements about the future.