Beyond the touch screen - Impressions from the world’s largest industrial fair (2019 edition)

• 09.04.19 •

Wilfried Bock • Interaction / UX Designer

The Hannover Messe takes place once per year in the center of Germany’s north. This year there were over 210,000 visitors hosted by over 5,000 exhibitors, who demonstrated all sorts of manufacturing related products, processes, and trends. You won’t find any of the tech featured here at your local shopping mall, and yet the amount of exhibitors and visitors still exceeds CES - the world’s largest consumer electronics show - by more than 10%.

As a designer and veteran engineer, I decided to make my way down from Helsinki to see the current state of design and tech in manufacturing.

Hannover Messe 2019 - Pneumatics ad Neither flashy nor necessarily recognizable, the first ad you see when arriving via the light rail is for pneumatic systems and products.

AR/VR in practice

Right above the front gate was a mock-up of an engineer interacting with an almost dystopian style Augmented Reality interface - message received, the future is now, and it is all about AR and VR... or is it?

My general impression from working with AR and VR is that these technologies are quite useful for supplementing more traditional mediums with immersive and interactive features. This was also the case at various fair stands, where industry experts were comfortably explaining their products using AR in addition to pamphlets and digital screens. Quite often, under human guidance, AR was combined with interactive 3D models to demonstrate how machinery or factories work and look like on the inside. Virtual Reality, on the other hand, tended to offer a bit more immersive experiences, such as 360° factory tours, collaborative production line planning demos, or informative videos.

IMG 0483 Pump functionality and speed control demonstrated via AR

When it comes to the wearable tech itself Microsoft demonstrated its newest, industry-focused Hololens which will be available later this year. There were also field-tested and proven Industrial AR glasses which are already available right now. Devices like the RealWear HMT-1 and the Kiber helmet focus on a rugged build and solving problems commonly found out in gritty, remote manufacturing areas with poor network availability. In addition to a very comfortable fit, features such as heat-cameras, remote training or service collaboration and low-bandwidth optimization are in the forefront.

IMG 0560 This rugged AR headset is designed for real-time visual support for service work in remote locations

The next wave of 3D printers

Next up is 3D printing. In our consultancy we use it for robotics and rapid prototyping. My general feeling about 3D printing tech is that it has very much proven itself, is now in the fine-tuning phase, and the iterative improvements presented at the Messe support this:

  • Formlabs presented a new type of Draft Resin for rapid prototyping, that can reduce print speeds from 20h to only 6h
  • The Fraunhofer Institute demonstrated the Seam 3D printer, which can print granulated synthetic materials at 8x the speed of comparable extruders
  • BigRep presented their newest large-scale Pro 3D printer with 3D scanning and mid-print quality analysis via 5G and cloud processing
  • HP is aiming to tackle the costly problem of large-scale metal printing, and is still aiming to release the MetalJet series commercially in early 2020

One of the biggest innovations wasn’t on a big showcase though, but almost found by accident at a small, unassuming stand in the side-corridors - 3D printed, conductive silicone. 3D printing parts out of silicone has been available in Europe since 2017 and also in the US starting last month, but when combined with conductive silicone this might well be prove to be a boon to makers everywhere - flexible, tear- and heat-resistant up to 200° C, with the option of using it as either a flexible conductor or a variable resistor.

Embedded content: Pushing the 3D printed silicone to the limit (LED colours change based on resistance)

Robots helping cyborgs

Beyond flashy tech like conductive floors and theoretical 5G factory communication networks for wireless robots, one thing that impressed me the most was the focus on quality-of-life and safety for the average factory worker. Where robots were once very dangerous machines - confined to metal cages where no human may enter - companies were now talking more about robotic-human collaboration rather than replacement. This included human-safe, sensitive gripper hands like the Schunk Cobots (collaborative robots) or the Festo Bionic Soft Hand, and companies like IBG that create robotic helper arms which aim to use machine learning in order to create work specific behaviour profiles. These in turn will eventually adapt to different users and consider factors like user fatigue or capability, and then autonomously optimize for efficiency when performing tasks alone.

IMG 0500 Co-Act grippers have various mechanisms for safe human interaction and can adjust their behavior in real-time.

In addition to making robots more like humans, there was also a focus on making humans more like robots - I counted at least 3 different exoskeletons and countless other more low-tech tools that can be used to not only augment user strength or prevent critical strain, but are also capable of helping with rehabilitation and physiotherapeutic training.

lifters The human in the machine - from left to right: lifting trolley, lifting exoskeleton, leg-rehabilitation bot.

It’s All IoT - Brave new world

One trend that was consistent throughout all of the stands this year was IoT. What that means in practice is that where previously, most devices on the factory floor were connected via local communication networks, the whole production line is being opened up to remote monitoring and operation. This naturally brings a host of potential security vulnerabilities with it - and more drastic consequences than information leaks since we are talking about operating real-time systems controlling - potentially dangerous - physical machines. The field of industrial manufacturing can learn a lot from both web security and modern design here - not only must great care be taken when setting up secure communications, but care should also be taken with user experience to make the security tools more transparent than ever.

Final thoughts

From what I’ve seen at the fair in Hannover, most manufacturers are focusing on product maturity and incremental changes such as remote access. This may be, of course, viewed as a bad thing - but incremental can often mean a bump in quality, drop in price, or even that small quality-of-life improvement which makes a technology worth adopting. These changes are very real, very useful, and help us zero in on more relevant use-cases.

IMG 0548 The folks from Kiber have had a long journey towards better usability

Since the introduction of the web and smartphone, digital design and development has grown and become increasingly siloed from engineering and industry. Looking around today, we see that traditionally software-focused companies building their own humanoid robots, web developers creating custom home-automation, and manufacturing companies talking about user experience and taking leaps towards digitisation - from fully web-based automation tools right down to IoT on the factory floor. Now looking into the future, I’m sure we can continue to learn a lot from each other. Let’s strive to create a new reality together where flexible, co-creation based ways of working drive progress, and design challenges can be approached trans-disciplinarily.

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