Industrial Automation In Action: Steam Controller Assembly

Right up front, we’ll cop to the inevitable “not a hack” comments on this one. This video of the Steam Controller assembly plant is just two minutes of pure robotics porn, plain and simple.

From injection molding of the case parts through assembly, testing and final palletizing of packaged controllers for the trip to distributors, Valve’s video is amazingly detailed and very well made. We’d wager that the crane shots and the shots following product down conveyors were done with a drone. A grin was had with the Aperture Labs logo on the SCARA arms in the assembly and testing work cell, and that inexplicable puff of “steam” from the ceiling behind the pallet in the final shot was a nice touch too. We also enjoyed the all-too-brief time-lapse segment at around 00:16 that shows the empty space in Buffalo Grove, Illinois being fitted out.

This may seem like a frivolous video, but think about it: if you’re a hardware hacker, isn’t this where you want to see your idea end up? Think of it as inspiration to get your widget into production. You’ll want to get there in stages, of course, so make sure you check out [Zach Fredin]’s 2015 Hackaday Superconference talk on pilot-scale production.

[Via @ChrisGammell]

63 thoughts on “Industrial Automation In Action: Steam Controller Assembly

  1. And thanks to all those robots only middle and upper class spoiled kids will be able to afford those. Don’t get me wrong, I love hacking, technology and robotics but industrial automation is the devil. Managers and engineers are happy to replace human labour with robotic systems that put thousands upon thousands of people into unemployment and poverty. One day those unemployed will rise against engineers responsible for industrial automation and you know what? I won’t shed a tear for them as they deserve a punishment for oppresing the working class.

    1. As an automation engineer, this has put me in to a job. What about me?

      Also, the increase of automation has made the cost difference between China and western markets more comparable, if less labour is being used, there’s less of a price gap. Then the benefits of local manufacturing outweigh the cost savings of going East. Industrial automation is what will save western manufacturing.

        1. Sadly Mass Production also reduces quality if you use a blacksmith as the example (i know because i am one) A hand forged chain will outperform a manufactured one any day, it is also lighter than the mass produced one.

          A mass manufactured fence has a life expectancy measured in tens of years where as a hand forged or wrought fence is expected to last hundreds of years.

          Tools are also no exception, I have tongs and other tools that are 100+ years old, purchasing a new set of tongs/cutters or chisels i’m lucky to get 10 years life from them.and this is why i tend to make my own rather than purchase them.

          I have a chisel that I have used to hut cut a lot of steel, this has lasted me some 15 years and it still going strong, I was given a mass produced chisel and within a year the head had mushroomed, shaft had bent slightly and the tip was no longer workable.

          1. You’re mixing up craftsmanship and cheapness. Mass-produced things are designed to be made cheaply as quickly as possible. If it’s possible for a person to make something, it’s possible for a machine to make it. A machine could make a tool with incredible quality, but it’s quicker to make one of lesser quality and sell it at a higher price.

      1. Yup! The problem with automation is it exposes capitalism in decline, not that it hurts workers itself.

        Nobody wants to do goddamn dumb repetitive work just because. We do it because ‘jobs’ have been something we have to pray for. Pray for that little golden shower. It’s what gets you up in the morning.

    2. Dude, seriously? You argue because robotics and industrial automation is used in production assembly lines only middle & upper class spoiled kids will be able to afford this? Because what? Automation makes it more expensive and/or that the working class has no work & no money to afford it? How expensive would all these products eventually be without automation you think? That even the upper class wouldn’t be able to afford any of it due to total labor costs, you think thats better? The production wouldn’t even scale to fulfill worldwide demand. If industrial automation wouldn’t exist how many jobs you think would not have existed in this field? This is a great assembly line thats indeed pure automation porn, and your -what I call- bullshit is off topic.

      1. Screw you and your technology – one person with a shovel replaces 3 using their hands…using shovels means millions of children won’t be able afford a decent meal. Won’t someone think of the children!

        As an aside, as a Chem Eng, when I read ‘Industrial Automation’ and ‘Steam Controller’ I had something entirely different in mind.

    3. Wow, spoken like an uneducated moron.

      Please tell me who built the computer you wrote your idiotic comment on. I’m curious which company builds computers without using any industrial automation. I didn’t think that was even possible these days.

          1. If AI is doing all our jobs then fine. Why do we need jobs? They aren’t vital to survival like air, water, warmth and food. The only thing you really get from a job is a sense of achievement and purpose, which is great but you can get that raising a kid or making something because you wanted to or learning something. Just because it has always been done not mean it will always be.

    4. The issue isn’t automation. its who BENEFITS from the automation. Doing more work with less people is awesome for all of us if we just sit down and think through it.

      The thing that makes me nervous is that the way we survive in this world is by selling our skills and labor. This always worked out more or less because there where more things that needed to get done then people doing them.

      Automation changes that equation. There might not be enough things that need doing. What do we do then? What do we tell people? Society doesn’t need you anymore?

      If we don’t come up with a solution to this then it’ll work itself out naturally like a species of rabbits who breeds so much there’s no food left and the population crashes to a point where the amount of rabbits and the available food match.

    5. Indeed, they deserve punishment. How dare they! Don’t get me started on this Internet thing and how that’s putting the postman out of work either…

      Just like the greedy lot that figured out they could slice a log into chunks, drill a hole in the middle of it and slap it on the side of a wooden crate. Sure, it reduced the number of people needed to haul it by a factor of 3, but it put loads of people out of work!

    6. Yes, those dang American engineers put all those Chinese or Mexican laborers who were being paid pennies on the dollar, out of work.

      Do realize that it wouldn’t have been cost effective to make it in the US any other way? Blame the consumer and modern labor unions, not Valve. I’m very happy these are made in the states and to be honest, surprised.

      Them being made here by robots may not have produced a whole lot of unskilled labor work, but it did produce skilled labor and support labor. The building doesn’t sit empty, so that employs people who have to manage it. It employs people who have to maintain it. It employs the service techs to support the machines. The janitor and so fourth. There’s numerous good that comes from this! Think big picture.

    7. The first industrial revolution had the same effect, but people eventually moved past it, and it ultimately raised the quality of life by a lot.

      I’m not really sure what your argument here is, if you are even making one. If I used to make wooden wagons, and then someone comes along and starts making steel automobiles, do I have a legitimate grip that they are “evil” since they are putting me out of business?

      The default state of a person is poverty, not affluence. Every democrat will tell you differently, that the default state is affluence, and that everyone has the right to a comfortable life have to have everything provided to them by others, but that is a socially constructed expectation, not a natural right (in the sense of emerging from the physical, biological world). If I go out into the world and just stand there, I don’t end up with shelter, education, healthcare, a and a new iPhone every year.

    8. They have a solution for robots taking over, it’s called base-income where everybody gets a base income regardless of employment.
      They are doing experiments with it in europe.

      So yes it would need a new model instead of the now ancient capitalistic one, but you have to wonder if this old model is viable anyway, if alone because of the population aging in the western countries.

      I guess to get it accepted the religious and ancient backwards politicians would have to step into this millennium though. Which might be harder in some countries.

      Anyway, we can just reminds them that in that system you can still have a 1% and still have snobs and elitism and still retain power (in fact in some ways you can control people even more).

    9. well sir, i encourage you not to upgrade your skill set and keep on fighting to maintain the status quo, I my self welcome those people to the job market as it is less people that i have to compete against when going for a promotion or raise. Instead of complaining about problems you have no chance of stopping (the common forward march of technology) I take the time to learn and read and enhance my skill set thus making my self more employable so i don’t ever have a problem in finding a new job. its a matter of mind set really either you fight entropy and try and maintain the same old story (as we as a society have been trying to do for the past 25 ish years) or you accept the inevitable that times will change and so should you.

      every thing changes over time, it is physics and you cant argue that. the more you try and impede the progress of society, the more violent the revolution will be when people have had enough.

      as mentioned by another poster above, its time for a basic income (that would be set at a level that someone could live a frugal but healthy life off of and the rest would be people working for extra spending money for consumption or working in fields that they truly love.

    1. I’ve worked with engineers on much simpler production lines than this, and I can tell you that this is pure genius. Getting even ONE custom machine working properly takes a lot of patience, work, intelligence, and attention to detail. Getting an entire building full of production machinery to play well together is an order of magnitude more difficult.

    2. I’m not sure they’re 3D printed. I’d bet they’re milled HDPE. 3D printing gives you lines and warps, ABS is sticky, it’s prone to breaking along the layers, and the quality of this build does not look like they’re slumming it with 3D printers. No, this looks a lot more like HDPE, which is easy to mill, doesn’t warp because it’s not being extruded and going through heat cycles, is very smooth, and is very strong. Source: my company transitioned from 3D printed fixtures to milled HDPE fixtures.

      1. They are milled. Any fixture that makes contact with visible portions of the controller is made from esd Delron to prevent marring. I’m one of the PLC and Robot programmers who built this assembly line and the line for SteamLink, and am still on site supporting it and improving OEE.

  2. I have mixed feelings about this video. I like the video per itself, as this automation technologie is really impressive. On the other hand I fear humans obsolescence. When everything will be done by computers and robots what will be our purpose (raison d’être) ?

    1. For the time being, we will be able to concentrate on things that mindless robots don’t do well, like art and music (and as the other reply points out, reproduction).

      Once they are capable of performing those things, our new raison d’être will be trying to stay alive as the robots seek to enslave or eliminate all of humanity.

      Sounds pretty fulfilling to me.

          1. Well, if that’s something that floats your boat and is legal in your country, then I guess go ahead and give one of ’em a good banging.

            I’ll stick with my own species, thank you.

        1. seeing as there is no objective way to determine “better” when it comes to art and music as both of those mediums are by definition subjective, i find all this banter about robots taking over to be dull and GOML-ish (get off my lawn). why are people so cranky and insistent on protecting what they already know rather than constantly expanding and learning new things?

    2. Automation only renders humans obsolete in a world where work is what gives a person value. If you accept that being able to produce enough to feed, clothe, and house everyone without everyone working means that not everyone should have to work there’d be no problem.

  3. Programming all the robotics is a whole ‘nother industry. We see the beautiful ballet of the robots but ignore the 95% of backstage work that also has a payroll. Translating a Norwegian book on how programming’s done kept me profitably engaged for several months.

  4. Great video! I always enjoy watching robots do their thing with precision. My favorites, though, are the vehicle body shop robots. I always think of them as doing a sort of dance, or ballet as they work. It is a beautiful site. As far as jobs go: Someone has to design the robots, build the robots and maintain the robots (huge job in itself to keep them running). Robotics are not new. One of the first, that I witnessed, as an automotive assembly plant tooling engineer, of a fully automated automotive paint and car body build shop, was in operation in 1985. This assembly plant also used AGV’s (automated guided vehicles) to move material around. Also, an almost (people inspected and tested) fully automated powertrain module assembly line: 1992.

    1. Are you referring to the black flour mats in the video? They look like ‘anti fatigue mats’ and they helps allot when doing a standing job all day. I’m not sure about the ESD-safety. A full ESD-safe flour its much more common these days. I came across a few in my electronics assembly days.

    1. Console? This is for PC’s and the games that traditionally dont work well with regular console controllers. Not everyone can sit at a desk and play games with a mouse and keyboard. If I try my wrists start going to hell in short order.

    2. I actually own one. It’s a USB gamepad that you can reprogram on the fly, so it works on PC/Linux/Mac/Android. They nailed the design goals (get a mouse and keyboard onto a controller, be usable, and have it make sense).

      If not for the haptics on it, I would say it’s handicapped. Instead, its actually rather responsive. It’s also 50 USD, so it’s competitive on that point.

  5. This whole thing looks damn expensive!!

    And for those “don’t make humans obsolete” guys: Doing the same step over and over for hours each day earning almost nothing is better than requiring high qualified people that engineer the process, build up the line and maintain it?

    This will bring you to the question:
    More people with shitty jobs (and shitty live)
    Less people with better jobs and very likely better live.

    which simply can not be answered.

  6. I work on industrial lasers used to weld car bodies. The bodies and components could be redesigned to be hand-welded, but you wouldn’t want that car. It would be weaker (large heat-affected zones at the welds), Heavier (large weld flanges, uglier (large welds and flanges). Welder jobs are lost to robots and lasers but the product is better. With automatic loading/unloading machines, plenty of our laser slat sheet cutters can run unattended for hours, with a forklift operator to move bins a couple of times a day.

  7. Don’t know about western countries. I’m from India, yeah most populated country, and still we struggle to find labours in every field. The ones who are unemployed are those who want jobs better than their qualifications or who feels begging is easier than working.

  8. At 0:001…

    A high bay factory, not the best format for an electronics assembly plant, to keep the RH at 40-60% and the temperature at 70F +/- 2 degrees.

    Bay doors for trucks that will open and close and change that.

    No explanation of the loaders of the flex circuits at 0:16 but at least they are black ESD compliant.

    No explanation of why certain work cells are enclosed at 0:22.

    No explanation of selective paste soldering at 0:28

    No explanation of why a red light is used with machine vision at 0:31. No mention of what looks to be Nylon 6/6 custom fixtures either.

    Making a standard injection molding machine look like terminator at 0:33.

    No mention of a customized, pretty cheap PNP at 0:38.

    At 0:47, I will give mad props as someone that is sitting and has a more limited movement, and isn’t grounded in more than one way…

    The person on the left has a blue “smock” Sitting on a “blue” structure, but does not have any ESD gloves on, and I can’t see an ESD wrist strap.

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