My friends in England like to point out, “There are cameras everywhere!” And it is true. What they mean is that cameras for speeders on roadways (a highly unpopular use of the technology that seems to be catching on in the larger U.S. cities), and the ubiquitous security cameras (and not just in London) are everywhere.

We are experiencing something similar in fabricating—really, in most types of discrete manufacturing. (Discrete, as opposed to process, manufacturing has an end product that is a thing, an object made of solid materials.)

Yes, cameras are invading our turf and our machines. The turf invasion started with security cameras, some on the loading dock, some above the shop floor. Now some of the cameras have a roving life on our turf. Their mission is not security but navigation, assisting products like AMRs (autonomous mobile robots) as they go through our shops, warehouses, and shipping departments.

The cameras that are in or on our machines have multiple purposes. In many cases, there are as many cameras as there are purposes on some of the more robust machines. What are some of these purposes? Let’s make a list:

  • Monitoring. The camera is there to help “keep an eye on things.” Often, this function monitors the proper overall operation of a machine, say, a laser cutter. If the operator or a supervisor has the image of a stopped device, and that device is only halfway through its work, then something is wrong and someone needs to check it out.
  • State recognition. Robotic and/or autonomous welding systems use color to figure out the welding temperature of a given metal. Or, a camera might measure the amount of light coming through a component to know if it’s time to replace that component. Shape is another attribute that can change over the lifetime of a consumable system.
  • Augmented reality. This has shown practical use in lasers. The application that is most shown is the one where someone throws a piece of scrap steel onto the cutting bed without aligning straight edges to the side. Although that piece is plopped carelessly, the camera will spot the straight edges and take those into consideration when figuring out a nest or a path to the part. The entire cut job will be moved eight degrees (or whatever the angle is).
  • Machine controllers. Here is a new and interesting entry for employing cameras in a shop. A camera with the right software can do facial recognition! We already store operator profiles, and in doing so we typically save the most complex work for the most experienced hands. Those with higher skills get to utilize more of the functions of the advanced machine. Now, we can use facial recognition to automatically change the profile when a different, say, press brake operator strolls up to the machine. All the rights and restrictions are put into place upon recognition, and all the data produced will be appended to that operator’s database of work.

My English friends are spot on.