A Lens on New Technology and the Future of AI in Manufacturing
No industry has seen more negative impact from robotic technology than manufacturing. But will this new technology actually become a net benefit in that industry? Invested visits the precision optics manufacturer Optimax to find out.
Gabriella Chiarenza is managing editor for Invested and Regional & Community Outreach and Jay Lindsay is a writer and editor for Invested and Corporate Communications, both at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.
Its lenses are used when NASA takes pictures of Pluto and Mars. Its custom optics and optical components are critical pieces in a variety of medical-imaging devices. Its products help guide unmanned military vehicles.
Optimax doesn’t just use the latest technology, it helps create it. So it’s no surprise that a visitor to the Ontario, NY,-based manufacturer finds robotics on its floor and automation in its plans. This company is in business to make the future happen, and AI and automation are part of that future—a future that looks nothing like Terminator-style domination by machine. Instead it’s all about integration and augmentation. That’s because customers today demand customized manufacturing, which often requires an intuition machines don’t have and a flexibility they can’t match.
“The best part about new machines and the sophisticated technology is that they’ll do exactly what you tell them to do over and over and over again,” said Matt Rider, a company team leader. “The horrible part about new machines is they will do exactly what you tell them to over and over and over again.”
Basit Qaderi, a data engineer in IT at Optimax, said that while you can program a computer to think logically and mathematically and never make mistakes, “sometimes you have to go with your gut feeling. … Sometimes you need that human being to make that decision.”
Optimax was founded in 1991 by a group of Eastman Kodak workers and has since grown to more than 400 employees. Its market is broad and expanding, said Alejandro Mendoza, human resources manager.
“Anything that needs light (to operate) needs some type of optical component,” he said. “Anybody designing something that needs some type of optical component, we have the opportunity to work with.”
Mendoza added that Optimax’s constant work with evolving technologies has taught it to explore any chance to use technology to improve systems and processes. That’s why it’s incorporating automation and robotics into its operations.
“For people to go in scared (of new technology means) missing out on opportunities,” he said.
The robots at Optimax were created there and work on the shop floor polishing aspheres—lenses that can focus light to a small point, greatly increasing clarity. The company is also implementing automation software so that machines can do mind-numbing, non-ergonomic tasks.
Optimax’s foray into the world of automation and artificial intelligence has been fairly limited so far, but the company is open to venturing further. Matt Brunelle, a research and development engineer, said the company sees a chance to collect data it’s never been able to gather before and then to mine that data for new insights. Qaderi said that one particularly exciting possibility is the use of virtual or augmented reality to train people to work with delicate lenses, because that could enable comprehensive training without putting expensive lenses at risk.
But as the company looks for ways to expand its use of AI and robots, Brunelle paraphrased a warning from Elon Musk that Optimax is heeding: “(Musk) said one of their big stumbling blocks in the earlier days of Tesla was that they were trying to teach robots to do things that were really easy for humans to do, and then trying to get humans to do things that were really easy for robots to do. So trying to be able to keep that distinction in mind, I think, is important.”
Optimax employees said one thing is clear: The robots will never take over Optimax—the most they’ll do is help out.
Brunelle cited an example from the Optimax quality and inspection department to highlight the machines’ current limitations. To work properly, lenses can’t have any scratches on them, so any imperfections must be spotted before the product goes out the door. But so far, only humans are able to do that, as it’s proven extremely difficult to write software or find cameras that can detect the scratches and then quantify their shape and depth, Brunelle said.
Another factor limiting automation at Optimax is the high level of customization clients and jobs require. The standardization that might make expanding the use of machines easier just isn’t possible, so humans must remain front and center.
Demands for customization extend past Optimax and the optics industry to many other manufacturing industries. It’s one reason why no one at Optimax is panicked about a broader robot takeover.
“When it comes to robots taking over in the manufacturing world, I have no concern, really, at all,” Rider said. “From my experience working with the robots and the other technologies similar to it, it’s just an enabling technology. In the end, you still need human interaction—you still have to have somebody to tell it what to do.”
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