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Technology

Automation and Fiber

We have clearly entered the age of robots, which can be witnessed in new factories where robots excel at repetitive tasks that require precision. I read an interesting blog at Telescent that talks about using robots to perform routine tasks inside large data centers. Modern data centers are mostly rooms full of huge numbers of switches and routers, and those devices require numerous fiber connections.

The blog talks about the solvable challenges of automating the process of performing huge volumes of fiber cross-connects in data centers. Doing cross-connects with robots would allow for fiber connections to be made 24/7 as needed while improving accuracy. Anybody who has ever been in a big data center can appreciate the challenge of negotiating the maze of fibers running between devices. The Telescent blog predicts that we’ll be seeing the accelerated use of robots in data centers over the next few years as robot technology improves.

This raises the interesting question of whether we’ll ever see robots in fiber networks. As an industry, we’ve already done a good job of automating the most repetitive tasks in our telco, cable, and cellular central offices. Most carriers have automated functions like activating new customers, changing products and features, and disconnecting customers. This has been accomplished through software, and the savings for automation software are significant, as described in this article from Cisco.

But is there a future in the telecom industry for physical robot automation? I look around the industry and the most labor-intensive and repetitive processes are done while building new networks. There probably is no more meticulous and repetitive task than splicing fibers during the construction process or when fixing damaged fibers. Splicing fiber is almost the same process used in the past to splice large telephone copper cables. A technician must match the same fiber from both sheathes to create the needed end-to-end connection in the fiber. This isn’t too hard to do when splicing a 12-fiber cable but is challenging when splicing 144 or 288-count fibers in outdoor conditions. This is even more challenging when making emergency repairs on aerial fiber in a rain or snowstorm in the dark.

This is the kind of task that robots could master and perform perfectly. It’s not hard to imagine feeding both ends of fiber into a robotized box and then just waiting for the robot to make all of the needed connections and splices perfectly, regardless of the time of day or weather conditions.

I had a recent blog that talked about the shortage of experienced telecom technicians, and splicers are already one of the hardest technicians for construction companies to find. As we keep expanding fiber construction, we’re liable to find projects that get bogged down due to a lack of splicers.

I have no idea if any robot company has even thought about automating the splicing function. We are in the infancy of introducing robots into the workplace and there are hundreds of other repetitive tasks that are likely to be automated before fiber splicing. There might be other functions in the industry that can also be automated if robots get smart enough. The whole industry would emit a huge sigh of relief if robots could tackle make-ready work on poles.

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