Exploiting new technologies in areas of robotics and vision systems – Is that innovation or invention?

I recently read an article about Diego Taburini (Autodesk) speaking on the evolution of 3D printing (posted here). One of his most important observations, to me anyway, was that companies might think to spend more time “exploiting the unique capabilities” of 3D printing technology.

Many of us spend so much time thinking on iterative improvements we might miss the opportunity to see how new technologies (or simply affordability of existing technologies), can deliver radical change. 3D Printing certainly, but also robotics, for instance.

Let me explain by example. A company (I recently spoke to) manufactures custom machinery. Their machines (might, for example) process materials to produce a finished product; perhaps turning a metal block into a shaped, drilled, tapped finished part.

In the past, this company spent huge efforts designing and making production lines and machine assemblies to make that part. These might have included systems to transport from raw to finished component; involving the likes of cams, gears, followers, location mechanisms and other transportation assembles. Not forgetting sophisticated control systems to deliver and control part and process from start to finish.

Now let’s look at that company today. They use (much lower cost, and newly affordable) robotic systems, coupled to vision systems to replace vast swathes of ‘historical’ mechanisms. They don’t need to transport, move, rotate, align etc. mechanically. That’s done by the robots, often using intelligence of the vision systems to locate (even audit quality) and so on.

The results? Design times have been slashed, their machines are less (mechanically and control system) complex, programming is easier, and modification and re-usability of the equipment and constituents is streets ahead of its predecessor. So too, they have happier customers, improved timescales, in some cases lower costs and always, more profit. Not to mention the fact that they can have their design (manufacturing) engineers and other personnel focused on more value-added tasks.

Many speak on the topic of ‘innovation’. Not to demean the word, to me, it’s more to do with iterative improvement. Necessary, for sure, but we must also look to how we can delivering more ‘invention’; applying original thought, product or process; perhaps thinking ‘out of the box’ to  take advantage of the new. A good an example, if any were needed to …”don’t just make a better mousetrap, figure out a better way to catch mice”

Keen to hear your thoughts on the subject!