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Artificial intelligence in machine control

Author : Steve Sands, Festo GB

26 January 2024

It’s been a challenging few months for artificial intelligence (AI), as negative press stories about its potential misuse outweighed those advocating its power for good. Wider awareness and acceptance of AI will accelerate its uptake within automation, but we may have to use terms like deep and machine learning to avoid some of the misperceptions. 

Engineers need to become more familiar with the benefits of AI, and identify the industrial applications based on the individual business cases where this technology can be applied to best effect. There are already tools to aid this process. For example, the Festo Automation Experience [AX] artificial intelligence tool enables engineers to use machine learning algorithms to achieve high added value from the data produced by their systems. It was designed to address three key areas – preventative maintenance, energy consumption and quality optimisation – so customers can ultimately increase productivity and reduce costs. 

Festo AX keeps “humans in the loop” by integrating the users’ valuable application knowledge and findings with our algorithms using Reinforcement Learning Software. The user inputs help Festo AX ‘learn’ more about the state of the assets, providing continuous learning and thereby improving the algorithm predictions. This means anomalies are defined with greater reliability, and finer classifications and alerts are raised more appropriately.

Human feedback on anomalies detected within the data trains the software, translating raw data into systemised models where patterns are established, and the causes and solutions are correctly categorised and communicated. Notifications and alerts are raised to the appropriate people at the best time and in the preferred way. This can be via high level reports, maintenance interventions, text messages or direct input to smart maintenance tools.

Emerging AI applications

This illustrates how the future of machine learning and industrial automation are intrinsically linked. In the not-too-distant-future, we will see more powerful software tools that speed up and support designers and programmers with AI-optimised machine designs. I’m sure that these will be easier than ever before to use; for example, by being programmed more intuitively than today, using plain speech or text.

Complex machine models will be created more quickly, and error-free from standardised and structured data models. Intrinsic to this is the role of digital twins for the components and sub-systems. These incorporate all the information about components’, their physical attributes, performance dynamics and operation.

Having this information in a standardised and structured format enables it to be read digitally and means the user doesn’t need to ‘hard program’ all this data. The system ‘reads’ its constituent parts and ‘understands’ their operation, interpreting anomalies in their performance and supplying valuable information in plain text, enabling improved predictive maintenance, energy consumption, etc. This means the digital system configuration is always up to date and isn’t reliant on updating documentation or programs during the machine lifecycle.

Steve Sands, Technical Consultant, Festo GB
Steve Sands, Technical Consultant, Festo GB

In future, it may be that designing machines using AI will work in a similar vein to creative AI programmes like Stable Diffusion Art, whereby the user defines the task - what they want to achieve, and AI APIs suggest alternative solutions. The engineer can either directly review the solutions or use a secondary AI package to challenge the designs and ensure they are feasible (as Chat GPT already does).

We can already see AI tools being used for software programming based on the clear text definition of the task, the proposed machine design and any constraints and frameworks, such as safety.

Realising the potential of AI

The introduction of any new technology or way of working presents challenges and opportunities, and AI is no exception. Staying up to date with the latest AI developments is essential if we are to realise its potential and understand its limitations. Only then can we work with our customers, enabling them to gain confidence in the full benefits of the technology. At Festo, we are embracing the new era of AI and look forward to our customers reaping the rewards.

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