New, innovative automation applications

Think Again: Startups, 3-D printing, drones, and automation in space are among the expanding uses for automation.
By Mark T. Hoske, CFE Media February 10, 2018

Dr. Julielynn Wong, MD, MPH, is founder, chairman, and CEO of 3D4MD. Courtesy: Mark T. Hoske, Control EngineeringStart-up automation-related companies, drones, 3-D printing, and space missions are among the expanding uses for automation, as explained at the 2018 A3 Business Forum in Orlando in January. Innovation also creates and extends interest in engineering automation.

Automation is being applied for humanitarian benefits through additive manufacturing and drone technologies, helping in remote geographical or economic situations, including space travel, explained Dr. Julielynn Wong, MD, MPH, who is founder, chairman, and CEO of 3D4MD. 

3-D printing, drones, space

Wong challenged assembled automation leaders (about 650 were expected) to sponsor a 3-D printer make-a-thon to address a humanitarian need. A side benefit, she suggested, is doing so often attracts an equal number of women and men and often appeals to younger talent automation-minded companies try to attract and retain. Automation technologies used in 3-D printing include: sensors, actuators, motion controllers, motors, a network, a human-machine interface (HMI), and software to translate the 3-D object map into motion coordinates.

3-D printing projects, applications

Wong brought a carry-on-sized 3-D printer to the presentation and set it to work on stage printing a part. Technology advances have progressed making printers smaller.

In 2015, while listening in on astronaut communications on the International Space Station (ISS), someone said, "I wish I had a tool of this size." Two weeks later, NASA was uploading a digital file to the ISS. In space, it’s easier to have digital files than actual parts or tools for every possibility, especially for longer missions, she explained.

When used for health care, low-cost 3-D printing may mean more patients get care more quickly, especially in areas that may not have specialized medical care. That would include space. Astronauts cannot take everything needed into space, but they can bring or uplink 3-D files for medical supplies.

Drone projects and applications

Drone technology also is widely accessible and have potential to help, especially those 1 billion people who live on less than $2 per day. Drones are used to speed drugs, lab samples, medical supplies, and food in critical situations. Automation technologies used in drones may include: motion controllers, motors, sensors, vision system, actuators, GPS, HMIs (which may include augment reality display and or smartphone interface), wireless communications, and onboard networking.

Mark T. Hoske, content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media. Courtesy: CFE MediaSponsoring a medical make-a-thon to address a humanitarian need can help decrease the 9-month average wait for resources in the field. Wong noted a mission to resupply Mars explorers would be about the same. 

Startup in robotics

Startup companies offering various new automation-related technologies included a pick-and-place robotic arm designed to mount on mobile robots, a vision-guided robot without position or force sensors, robotic grippers, simple machine monitoring, and a talent assessment and development dashboard software. Think again about how to excite and involve the next generation in automation-related engineering.

Mark T. Hoske is content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media,


Read more about 3-D printing, drones, and automation startups in two online articles below.