Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Giving Sense of Movement To Bionics

Jon SensingerOne of the most promising and dynamic areas of current manufacturing in America is the medical field, where experts estimate the industry is on course to generate over $150 billion in worth by the end of this year. Much of the success of the recent upsurge in the American medical industry is due to technological breakthroughs in surgical appliances and devices. Demand for the next generation of medical equipment is driving investments such as IntriCon's latest 30,000 acre expansion of its existing Arden Hills facilities. Specifically, bionics show much potential, and the field is exploding with over $36 million in worth. Biotech enhancements and replacements span multiple patient needs, from the maimed veteran to the elderly person who just wants to walk to the corner store without knee pain.

At the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, specialists bring many of the most cutting-edge designs of current bionic research out of the lab and into patient use. While there always exists barriers in upgrading the mechanics of current biotechnology, some of the most important work being done seeks to unlock mysteries surrounding the human body. Together with fellow colleagues in Canada, researchers at Cleveland Clinic may have solved one of the most elusive problems in advancing bionic prosthetics for patients. 

Led by Paul Marasco, researchers at the Laboratory for Bionic Integration, a part of Cleveland Cinic's Lerner Research Institute, worked with a team led by John Sensinger of University of New Brunswick's Institute of Biomedical Engineering (as well as supporting experts in Alberta and Virgina), to crack the code of restoring kinesthesia- the innate sense of movement- to patients relying on bionic limbs. Although bionic limbs have made vast improvements in maneuverability and ease of use, they have always been limited to one sense: sight. In order to fulfill mundane tasks like picking up objects, patients must be able to see their prosthetic limbs in action so that they are accurately used.

Image result for cleveland clinic bionics breakthrough kinesthesia
Cleveland Clinic illustrates the idea behind granting greater kinesthesia
to patients with prosthetics. 
The process is fascinating and a lesson in utilizing the body to accept prosthetic enhancements using innovative thinking.  With the knowledge that the brain can sense movement in a set of muscles through tiny vibrations, the team used tiny robots to create micro-vibrations within the afflicted muscles (or sometimes even just a rerouted nerve activating that muscle). The result was an illusion of sensation for the patients, whereby they could stay aware of how their bionic limb was moving through space without needing to look at it.

Implications of this innovation are huge. "By restoring the intuitive feeling of limb movement — the sensation of opening and closing your hand — we are able to blur the lines between what the patients’ brains perceived as self versus machine,” says Marasco. This feat may allow similar breakthroughs that will further integrate machinery into a human being's biological system. Prosthetic limbs, as well as exoskeletons such as the Ekso which, since its 2012 introduction to the market, has been making strides in improvement, will more and more be greeted by a user's mind and body as one and the same.   

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Robots and the US Worker: A Potential Alliance?

A worker operates a robotic arm at Safran. Photo: Cyril Abad
Watching the news or reading online, it could be easy to conclude the average American is fighting tooth and nail against an emerging trend of automation in the workplace. It is true that American employment has been effected in some way by automation. Many Americans have seen evidence of job losses as a result of robot replacements. That said, most of the country do not believe they will be replaced by one, themselves. This could be good, old-fashioned cognitive dissonance, but it could also signal  the question of whether the future of labor belongs to the worker or the robot is not nearly as binary as it is framed in the clumsy narrative of mainstream media. In fact, more and more, it could very well be argued that automation could save American employment.

To be sure, the world of robotics is currently integrating itself into the US industry at skyrocketing rates. 2017 was a banner year, as over $1.47 billion worth of robotics were ordered throughout North America in the first nine months, alone. Traditional industries from automobiles to food and service saw an increase in robotic parts, as well as non-automated parts. This upsurge represents the greatest number yet of automated integration. By some rationale, it would then follow job numbers would have an inverse trend. On the contrary, employment for manufacturing has been steadily increasing from 2010 to at least 2016. Could this be in spite of robotics? It is true that correlation does not equal causation, but experts within the industry see ample evidence to support the idea that automation is creating opportunities for niche hires, or even new job titles, altogether.

One such example is the field of Application Specific Machine Vision (ASMV).  While Machine Vision is defined as pliable in application, ASMV are turnkey systems that find ways to implement specific roles across multiple industries: experience-heavy in the small picture, interchangeable in the big one. ASMV as a market is expected to increase this year, and it represents an intersection of old-industry expertise and new standardization. Because it is a technology that uses specifications for tools such as sensors and lasers, it will demand new skills for maintenance and development. Especially in the context of development, companies would do well to cultivate an innovative working force. ASMV is intended to be constantly added to in hard and software, and workers who inherently understand a company's unique installation from the time it is implemented on will be of high value.  Therefore, whole new wings of IT departments could certainly result in a company's large-scale adoption of ASMV. Additionally, managing ASMV on a daily basis will require applicable skills for even the basic floor worker.

None of this is to say the transition into the new model of workforce will be easy, nor to diminish the pain of mass amounts of jobs designed for a 20th century world suddenly finding itself redundant or unnecessary for new demands. Automated factories may very well be a difficult realm for the working class to navigate. The signs are there, however, that new workers will be needed to train and learn to operate within them. While technology is more and more impressive and encompassing, it still yields to the same patterns of the Industrial Age; when invention solves a demand, it can open up several more.

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.