Vendors of computers designed for factory-floor use increasingly include multimedia processing capabilities into their products. Meanwhile, almost no board computer designed to control a pharmaceutics product line, a tool machine or a roller mill comes without graphics capabilities that only a few years ago were a feature of serious game machines. Well, we've learned that nowadays machine tools and control stands have graphical user interfaces, touch-screen control and many whistles and bells the designers for machines a generation earlier did not eve think of.
But now the control computers even start to sport audio capabilities. Do tool machine designers intend to run Beethoven's 5th symphony in the factory? Not exactly. The next generation of Tool machines will run speech recognition systems. Or at least something like that. However, these machine tools won't necessarily look like the ones we are used to. To get an impression how they might look like, it helps to do a glimpse at a research project at Fraunhofer institute for production technology and automation (IPA). These guys are working on a concept for a new generation of production robots specifically designed for small and medium enterprises (see www.SMErobot.org).
SMEs have no use for the highly specialized robotized assembly lines we know from the automotive industry, and, by the way, they would not be able to afford them. What they need are flexible robots that can do a broad range of work without complicated programming and re-programming. What the Fraunhofer scientists have in their mind is a machine that even understands (and, hopefully, executes) spoken orders. Of course, for this purpose, the machine needs speech processing capabilities in addition to machine vision and sensor signal processing. What's more, the scientists are working on innovative user interfaces that include gestures and haptic elements from the person that trains the robots.
So perhaps in a few years it will be an everyday scenario that the foreman in a metalwork shop will yell at his robot "can you drill these holes into this piece and afterwards paint it" or something like this. And, once the work is done, the well-educated robot will report using synthetic language.
Looks like the multimedia capabilities for industrial computers are no exaggeration. Far from it, future systems will need much more of it.