I, Data Center: An Interview with A Robotics Professional
December 19th, 2013 By: Bill Kleyman
Today we conclude Data Center Knowledge’s three-part series on data center automation and the potential role of robotics.
Scott Jackson, Senior Robotics Programmer at DevLinks, has been working in the IT field for a very long time. He’s a robotics automation programmer and designer and has begun to see action at the data center level when it comes to robotics integration. He’s seen numerous projects, designed many types of robotics environments, and is a big supporter of placing robotics as a supplement in the next-generation data center.
Jackson recently sat down with us for a detailed conversation around robotics, automation technologies, and the future of the data center model. Here’s that chat.
Bill: The conversation around robotics continues to heat up as more large shops begin to explore the idea. What are you seeing in the robotics world that’s influencing this conversation?
Scott: Primarily, what I’m seeing drive this conversation is the new-found flexibility and adaptability in today’s industrial robots, along with historically low costs for automation integration. Factories have been automated on a large scale for the last 30 to 40 years or so. For the most part, they have simply been repeating the same process over and over, without deviation. Newer capabilities (such as vision, RFID, force sensing, networking, etc.) are being baked into pipeline robots as standard or low cost options. These new capabilities allow the robot to conform to changes in its environment, rather than relying on total compliance to a specified norm. It’s this kind of adaptability that would be necessary in a complex environment like a data center. After all, you’re not building cars. You’re handling thousands of components which aren’t necessarily located with a high tolerance. A robot needs to be able to adjust to that on the fly. We’re finally at that point in history where it’s become feasible to assign these tasks to a robot.
Bill: That’s a very optimistic perspective. Plus, the notion that data centers can be complex is certainly very valid. Should data center administrators be learning about robotics? What sort of cross-training should happen?
Scott: Yes, but only to a point. While I applaud anyone willing to tackle robotics integration on their own, I would highly recommend seeking the services of an expert systems integrator for a project as large as an entire data center integration. A working knowledge of the robots themselves and the system as a whole is a must for easy scheduled and preventative maintenance, but there is simply too much to consider when it comes to system design.
Bill: Just like anything in technology, complexity is always a challenge that must be overcome. Still, automation, workflow orchestration, and data center optimization are all potential benefits that robotics can bring. Do you see a direct tie into management systems which help run data centers currently?
Scott: Industrial automation has been integrated with plant-wide data recording and production management systems for quite some time. The communication capabilities already exist, so I see no obstacle that would prevent something like that. In fact, I would think that a system like this would be necessary to help balance the workflow on the automation to get the absolute most out of it.
Bill: How have robotics advanced over the past 2 years? Have they become more intelligent, mobile, and easier to control?
Scott: By far the biggest advancement in industrial robotics has been adaptable technologies like machine vision, force sensing and learning vibration control. This stuff is not “new” to robotics, but it has recently become affordable enough that they can be used to replace old fashioned, complicated and expensive mechanical automation. A side effect of this has been that these new capabilities are opening up entirely new markets to robotics when it had previously been cost prohibitive to do so. More people are putting cameras on robots than ever before, and that increased demand has also led to increased development, making integration even easier.
Mobile robotics is making great strides too. Sensors used in mobile robots have come down significantly in price in the last couple of years, thanks primarily to the popularity of smart phones. Position and location sensors are being miniaturized and optimized for mass production. We’re going to start seeing smaller and cheaper mobile robots start filling roles in the workplace very soon as a result. Amazon’s Kiva is an often cited example of low-impact mobile warehouse integration. I say low-impact because the system is quite literally the mobile units themselves and the shelves that they move around. It’s considerably easier to install than the traditional gantry-based robotic retrieval system that a lot of other “lights-out” warehouses employ. Also worth mentioning would be Google’s efforts at self-driving vehicles and their recent acquisition of seven different robotics tech firms. It’s a safe bet that many more things than just automobiles will benefit from all of that development.