Technological leaps are almost always accompanied by a loss of jobs. Tailors, blacksmiths and letter carriers are all either obsolete or in steep decline thanks to advances over the past several hundred years. Yet most of the time, these losses are outnumbered by new positions created as a result of such destructive technologies. The companies now pioneering automation technology often demonstrate this apparent contradiction.
This present future
Currently, the field of automation and robotics is experiencing rapid developments due to the accelerated progress of artificial intelligence, computer vision, micromanufacturing and rapid prototyping. This means that complex and intelligent machines will start replacing some jobs, while also providing convenience and personal assistance. State of the art developments include driverless cars, which are currently being tested in the UK and some US states, suggesting that autonomous transportation will replace workers in the area of public transport.
Robots are already roaming around some hospitals to entertain patients and check on their needs. With further development, these automatons will eventually reduce the need for healthcare workers. Similar examples include microsurgical robots that are being augmented with artificial intelligence, smart automated building management systems, automated quality control, industrial automation, smart traffic control, 3D printed food, automated sushi belts and robotic waiters, to name but a few. This is not science fiction; it is happening today, and soon enough robots and other mechatronic systems will be handling many chores in the industrial, personal and service sectors. These and other technologies provide industries with several opportunities to improve their production at a lower cost.
Lebanon is ready for this endeavor. Several local mechatronics and automation companies are well established and have experienced noticeable growth. Most importantly, talented engineers and computer scientists are graduating from Lebanese universities — and they are the largest investment in mechatronic undertakings. This talent has been highlighted by several Lebanese engineers, who have been winning the “Stars of Science” award since 2008, with mechatronic inventions ranging from an autotuning product for stringed musical instruments to a waterproof heart rate measuring device. Lebanese American University (LAU) student Rania Bou Jaoudeh is currently in the final stage of the competition with an automated zucchini corer.
High tech, lower cost
Developing mechatronic systems is becoming cheaper and faster. Recently, substantial improvements have occurred in 3D printing and computer numerical control manufacturing technologies. 3D printers are becoming very cheap — some models go for as little as $500 — and versatile, with a wide variety of printing materials, precision and dimensions. Full sized cars, shoes and several types of food are just a few examples of products that are being shaped with 3D printers. The rapid prototyping–manufacturing technologies, along with elaborate computer aided design (CAD) software, are enabling fast and cheap product development. On the electronics side, the market is saturated with low cost microcontroller boards (a self-contained small computer on a chip with required peripherals to interface with the real world) with an open source development environment. Finally, off the shelf robust programmable robots are available and becoming cheaper — between $2,000 and $10,000.
In short, low cost rapid prototyping, elaborate CAD software, and simple and cheap microcontrollers are resulting in a fast and efficient method to design and prototype mechatronic systems without the need for large investments. The required initial investment to develop these systems is developing in a similar way to that of information and communication technologies. With low capital investment, the main cost is for human talent and creativity.
Lebanese entrepreneurs and industrialists should consider the vast fields of mechatronics, automation and robotics. There are numerous opportunities, ranging from new mechatronic product development for startups to the automation of several processes in established industries. Big acquisitions in this field are yet to come, but let’s hope a Lebanese startup or company will soon hit the news.