Researchers Develop Voice Control for Machining Equipment
Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute have made voice control of machines in noisy industrial environments possible, opening up efficiency, safety, and accessibility on the factory floor.
In a recent press release, the Fraunhofer Institute for Digital Media Technology (IDMT) announced that it has developed a system for controlling machinery through voice commands as an alternative to coding or manual manipulation. The system will increase worker mobility and efficiency, as users no longer have to manipulate controls but can instead keep their hands free for other tasks. It will also benefit workers with disabilities and limit the number of “touches” employees must perform on equipment, decreasing the potential for contamination of goods.
A researcher testing the voice control module on a milling machine. Image used courtesy of Fraunhofer IDMT
Voice Control of Machines
The control of machines through voice commands limits the amount of scrolling, clicking, menu navigating, and other time-consuming tasks often required when using automation systems. Instead, an employee can say, “grip the workpiece,” and the robot will locate and grip the workpiece. Furthermore, this system can be implemented through a mobile app and Bluetooth headset, such that a worker can control the system wirelessly while walking between other locations, performing maintenance on another machine, or any number of other tasks.
Marvin Norda, the project manager for Voice Coordinated Production at Fraunhofer IDMT, says the current system can “...handle hundreds of individual commands depending on the application and is not limited to a particular voice. New or modified commands can be quickly added and trained into the system.” This is a major advantage over previous attempts at voice-controlled systems, as these previous systems relied on matching recordings of a particular voice. With this system, the library of commands can be quickly updated and is suitable for different voices of multiple users. It also has advanced filtering to remove the background noise in most manufacturing environments.
The system is ready for commercialization and deployment. It has been tested in several manufacturing facilities, and their feedback has been incorporated into the final design.
Fraunhofer's system has the potential to increase accessibility, safety, and efficiency on the factory floor. Image used courtesy of Fraunhofer IDMT
Perhaps the two biggest applications for voice-controlled machines are in facilities that employ people with disabilities or in manufacturing lines where touch needs to be minimized for health and safety reasons. It has the potential to improve plant safety as well.
For employees who have missing limbs or impaired function of their limbs, voice control of the machinery can make their jobs much easier. It will also open up new potential for them on the factory floor. While an amputee may have trouble performing manual end milling of a part, if they could give the system a string of verbal commands, it would make it possible for them to work in this manufacturing area.
Some industries, such as pharmaceuticals and food and beverage manufacturing, must maintain high purity with few sources of contamination. Instead of having an employee stand over process equipment, touching all of the controls, they could monitor the process farther away and not need to touch the machine at all.
Regarding safety, the quicker and more intuitively a machine can be stopped, the safer the system. While emergency stop buttons must be placed within arm’s reach of every hazard, an operator yelling “help!” could also be used to shut down the machine. It would not replace the emergency stop buttons but could be an added feature—another way to stop the machine.
Opening Up Possibilities
Voice control of machines may have started as a solution in search of a problem; however, as it becomes more reliable, such as the Fraunhofer system claims to be, it will enhance safety and allow workers with disabilities new opportunities in the manufacturing environment.