Last month the Discovery channel ran a series of programs focusing on sharks and their behavior in the wild. The series contained quite a bit of new information, including footage of a seldom-seen shark that lives under the polar ice cap in the Arctic Sea.

Also featured was a promising new shark repellent. The shark chaser — which may one day be worn on wet suits — stems from recent investigations showing that sharks are highly sensitive to electromagnetic fields. According to researchers, sharks can detect fields as small as 100 μV/cm, roughly the voltage drop of a flashlight battery over a distance of one-half mile.

Researchers speculate that the built-in sixth sense may be part of a shark’s navigational system. Like whales and dolphins, sharks may use the Earth’s magnetic field to orient themselves in the vast oceans of the world. This theory, however, flies in the face of conventional thinking.

Sharks are generally considered one of the more primitive animals alive today. Indeed, the species shows little change since the time of dinosaurs. As a result, the common perception is that these extremely efficient eating machines are just big, dumb fish — all brawn and no brains.

In industry today, there’s a similar misconception about power transmission technology. For whatever reason, people tend to think that anything mechanical with a little heft is inherently unintelligent. The perception extends to systems incorporating mechanical components and ultimately industrial machines.

People who think this way might change their minds if they visited a modern production facility and looked closely at the automated machines. They would see that today’s machines are essentially distributed computers, packing more electronic and mechanical intelligence than many desktop PCs. They’d also come to realize that the underlying systems and components are themselves intelligent and highly interconnected, mechanically as well as electronically.

This state of affairs didn’t happen by accident. It’s the result of clever designers combining mechanical, electronic, and computer technology to optimize machines at every level. It’s also the result of forward-looking suppliers who come up with such innovations as bearings with built-in sensing and communications functions, and smart motors with adaptive algorithms that compensate for wear, misalignment, and other problems that beset mechanical components.

One day people’s perception of machines will catch up to reality, just as it will with sharks. Then they’ll realize that the systems and components that bring machines to life are not only intelligent, but masterfully connected and functionally inseparable.

What it will take to bring about this revelation is anyone’s guess. Mandatory education? A concerted public relations effort? Or maybe a series of television programs on a popular cable channel.

Larry Berardinis
LBerardinis@penton.com