Future of Equipment Maintenance?

Rather than a dry commentary on hardware start-ups, I thought I would record a couple of musings on the trend in surgery– and how it might be extended to machine repair.

I suspect the first “machines” ever built, in version 2, were built to be maintained.  Breakage of critical components was a fact of life.  So you designed the machine to be easily disassembled and reassembled.

leonardo da vinci: gears

Machine Built for Reassembly

Let’s look at another even more successful machine: the human body.  Each piece (except the very tough layer of keratin we call skin, hair) is extremely fragile if it is exposed to the environment, or if it is separated from the support systems.  Why does it work so well?  (1) it is a sealed system, with very good filters; (2) it defends itself vigorously against intrusions; and (3) it regenerates– we are learning more about stem cells every day.

Another Even More Successful Machine

When we decided to start repairing the human body, we approached it like the machines we knew: open the lid, disassemble, fix, reassemble, close the lid.  Use tools that looked very much like everyday implements: knives, scissors, pliers.  Only the human body really wasn’t made like a machine.

Fixing It Like a Machine

Anyone following medicine knows we have rapidly moved to a different model for fixing the human body: leave the system sealed to the maximum extent, and target only the problem itself.  Often fix the problem in place with stents, lasers, ultrasound, RF energy, “glue,” or even new tissue.  Leaving the system sealed has tremendous benefits.  You reduce the potential for collateral damage, and minimize the introduction of contaminants.  You don’t forget a pair of scissors inside.  The first generation used some pretty simple tools:

A Common Endoscopic Procedure

The second generation has harnessed advances in robotics to produce something far more sophisticated and agile:

Next Generation: DaVinci Telerobotic Surgical System

So– any implications for machines?

I expect the design of machines (from servers to jet turbines, and everything in between) will shift over the coming years, from a model where you can disassemble/reassemble easily, to one where the system is built sealed, and diagnoses/repairs/upgrades are done using minimally-invasive tools.  The potential advantages include:

  • Design systems for efficiency, cost, performance and better aesthetic value, not for traditional repair.  As an example, if you were to design a server rack for efficiency and performance, it’s unlikely you would make it based on plug-in cards/units.  In the extreme case you might want to have the whole thing immersed in cooling liquid.  An existing example is the MacBook Air– hardly built for modular upgrades and expansion– but for size, battery life, thermal performance.
  • Reduce maintenance errors.  Just as with the human machine, equipment repairs and upgrades often result in collateral damage.  How many times have you taken something apart, put it together, and had leftover screws?  Or heard something rattling inside?  Or had to force the cover closed for a reason you didn’t want to investigate?  Minimally-invasive maintenance on a sealed system would target the source of the problem, and leave everything else alone.

The tools for minimally-invasive manual repair already exist.  The first generation is pretty simple and has been in use for complex machinery for decades.  It’s no coincidence that they resemble first-generation minimally-invasive surgery equipment (and they are in some cases produced by the same companies, like Olympus):

Optical Fiber Borescopes

What I am interested in is what the next generation looks like– where robotic and imaging technology are brought to bear on this field.  Already there are some really interesting technologies being demonstrated.  For example, companies like OC Robotics are using “snake robot” technology an applying it to inspection:

Locally, Energid has developed a platform enabling real-time control for complex, “kinematically redundant” robotic limbs that can avoid even moving obstructions and inspect, repair.  They have also integrated vision-based guidance so a robot limb could in theory navigate through a machine based on a CAD file.

Much of this work is starting to be applied in environments where human hands are not an option: nuclear power reactors, outer space, deep sea.

Now comes the exciting part: taking next-gen minimally invasive machine inspection and surgery (or even assembly) to commercial applications.  And changing the way equipment is designed to take advantage of it.  This will require new extensions to CAD packages as well, to optimize design for repair, and potentially to co-design the “surgical tools” to do it.  That’s an opportunity we never had for the human body!

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