Research at AIIT

Dialog with an Uncertain Future / Excerp (Irregular updates)

The 2nd Installment“Safety and Security”

Seiichi Kawata,
dean of Advanced Institute of Industrial Technology

 That the terms “bright future” and “it’s all darkness one step ahead” cross my mind in pairs is not only due to the economic climate of late. This is because people involved with industrial technology solve real-life problems on a daily basis to realize a “bright future,” and strive to avoid a situation in which “it’s all darkness one step ahead.” The engineers engaged in this kind of industrial technology use their inherent technical capabilities to contribute to the prosperity of society. Here, if we consider the difference between engineering and science, I believe each has their own unique characteristics, with the purpose of science being the pursuit of truth, as opposed to engineering, whose purpose is make people’s dreams a reality. Also, the successful operation of many industrial processes that engineers have made a reality have delivered products into the hands of people in a tangible form. However, the products made by people have, as a matter of course, a beginning and an end. The same can be said of industrial processes. They have an operating life at plants, and as a foreboding of this, abnormalities and breakdowns emerge. By artificially creating, manipulating and controlling an environment far removed from the daily activities of people that comprises high temperatures, high pressures and the presence of dangerous substances, manufacturing that benefits people is taking place. However, proper attention must be given to safety at those manufacturing sites. It is precisely because we artificially create environments that go beyond the bounds of people’s common sense that we need to go to unnecessary lengths to be mindful of safety.

 When talking about this kind of safety and security, the history from the moment James Watt began making improvements to the steam engine must not be forgotten. Watt’s achievement in separating the condenser and cylinder to improve the efficiency of steam engines of the type typified by the Newcomen engine, is considered his biggest contribution. This advancement led to drastic improvements in heat efficiency. Watt also used a centrifugal speed governor—a mechanism that had been mounted in systems to grind flour using windmills—on his steam engine, to keep revolutions to a constant speed. The primary use for most conventional steam engines was for steam hammers and the like which utilized reciprocating motion, and when high quality rotative power was achieved using Watt’s steam engine, it became possible to operate machine tools such as lathes at a level of power greater than was possible when such tools were powered manually. In addition, Watt invented reduction gears through a sun and planet gear that circumvented a patent held by someone else, and finally came up with the idea of expressing power in units of horsepower as a measurement to evaluate the superiority of his self-designed steam engines. For this reason, watts (equal to one joule of energy per second) are used as a units of power. This is indeed an invention linked directly to business.

 Since Watt fully understood the immense power of steam, his steam engines were atmospheric pressure machines that utilized negative pressure. He avoided using pressure above one atmosphere. However, people’s desires did not follow Watt’s own, and high-pressure machines that attempted to utilize steam more aggressively were developed. The result was the boiler explosion of 1815. While boiler explosions continued to increase along with increases in power thereafter, legal systems were eventually established and boiler explosions decreased after the implementation of third-party inspection agencies, the introduction of a qualification system and the adoption of insurance. This is a case from which we can easily understand the importance of establishing social systems to develop technologies while ensuring safety and security.

 Engineers have cast the light of technology on a world that is “all darkness one step ahead,” and contributed to the realization of a safe and secure society in which we do not fall into unexpected pits. However, the field of industry is too far-reaching, and technology that stresses safety across the board is far from being pervasive. Whether it comes from issues of “cost,” or from the aesthetic sense held by Japanese society symbolized by the word “mottainai” (“a waste”), continuing to use old equipment and misjudging the length of its useful life may lead to a serious accident. Of course, there is a tendency for technologies related to safety to be viewed only as “costs,” and I think a key factor in this is the difficulty in recognizing these technologies as “value.”

 At the same time, the viewpoints of technologies related to safety as either “value” or “waste” are do not exactly run counter to each other; Rather, I believe there is a path to attaining “value” by developing new businesses. And, it is when safety is implemented and people become able to feel a sense of security towards technology, that the unnecessary waste symbolized by the expression “mottainai” can be eliminated. To that end, we need not only solutions to technological challenges, but also a review of social systems, and initiatives to transform technology and business mechanisms.

(This article has been adapted from a forward contributed by Seiichi Kawata in the Fiscal 2008 Research Report of the JEITA Expert Committee on Control Systems, entitled “Research Report on Predictive Maintenance Technologies: Aiming to Achieve the Secure and Safe Operation of Plants in the 21st Century.”)

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