The rapid advance of computer and related technologies is
having a dramatic affect on industrial technologies such as vision systems,
robotics and 3-D laser scanning. The result is that these technologies - once
available for use on only the highest-level projects, are becoming more viable
in a broader range of applications. And as the price for a given level of
functionality and performance comes down, the payback periods for many types of
automation projects have shortened.
As an example of how these cheaper, more
advanced technologies are changing the game for systems designers, Concept
Systems recently developed a vision system to enable one of our clients to
verify box size and the placement of labels on cases exiting a packaging line.
Ten years ago, this would have cost more than $100,000 because it would have
required multiple cameras and processors to keep up with the line speeds. Now
the system can be built with a single camera set-up at a cost of around
$30,000. The resulting system is much simpler, cost-effective and actually
includes even more functionality than could have been achieved 10 years ago
with the more expensive system.
Robots That Handle with Care
This vision system is a good example of a
broader technology trend we're seeing in new automation systems. The
integration of machine vision with robotics for circuit board pick-and-place
applications has been around for years, but due to limitations in processing
speed (or the cost of getting additional processing speed) these applications
have traditionally been limited to pattern recognition technology and
circumstances where the environment can be precisely controlled. Until the last
few years, sufficient computer power hasn't been available to cost-effectively
enable more randomly shaped or randomly placed items to be handled. Now with
the latest technologies, robotic vision systems can be built that are more
flexible and which can tackle more complex material handling problems.
One area that is receiving an increasing amount of attention is
feeding systems. "Bin picking" is a common term which refers to the challenge
of picking randomly placed objects out of a bin or tote and placing them
accurately on an infeed at production speeds. With these more advanced
computing technologies, the challenge of picking amorphous goods off a pallet
and placing them accurately on an infeed at production speeds is now a reality.
Here's an example of what we've
been able to do along these lines. A large coffee company was having problems
with a robot that it wanted to have unload pallets of 150-lb burlap bags
containing raw beans and then place those bags one by one on a conveyor to feed
a roaster. The company's old robot followed a fixed pattern and was unable to
identify where to grab the bags. The result was that the robot ended up tearing
the bags as it tried to grip them for transport. This handling problem was
costing the company 100,000 lb of lost beans per year, and the loose beans on
the plant floor were creating a safety issue.
Concept Systems fixed the
problem by constructing a control system that uses software on a high-end PC to
build a 3-D model of the environment in which the robot operates. Concept's
VisionFeed-3D system models each pallet of bean bags, using distance
measurements obtained via laser triangulation. The bags are piled 20 bags per
pallet in four layers of five bags per layer. A new computer model is
constructed for every tier of bags as the pallet is unloaded. The model is then
run through an advanced algorithm that identifies unique features of the bags,
and determines the precise position and orientation of each bag in that tier.
The position and orientation is then used to dispatch the robot to each bag for
pickup. The result is accurate bag pick-up and delivery without bag tearing or
The real technology challenge that this application provided is
the need to deal with the acquisition of relatively amorphous objects - the
bags of coffee beans. The system does this by taking two laser images and
stitching them together to eliminate shadowing from either laser. What enables
this technology breakthrough is the fact that the system could be built with
standard off-the-shelf components: the PC, the lasers, the video cameras and
the robot. Besides eliminating the problem of torn coffee bags, the new robotic
vision system can unload the pallets reliably at twice the speed of the
Modular Technologies for Multiple Use
With the proliferation of applications
that use vision and laser scanning to identify the position and configuration
of objects, the role of these systems in factory automation will expand to
offer contact-less position sensing to an ever broader range of applications.
One principal benefit of this will be lower maintenance costs, as vision
systems can be used to monitor machine status from a safe distance and close
control feedback loops without being subject to the stresses that can damage
Because their job is to solve automation problems for many
customers, good system integrators have the benefit of being able to take
technologies that have been applied successfully in some applications and
configure them for new uses. This is made much easier today because there's now
a lot more modularity to system building blocks and the capabilities of
standard system elements have increased.
Another enabler is the now-standard practice of using networks to
connect the subsystems of a machine. Besides improved reliability and lower
cost of construction compared to old machines using point-to-point wiring
methods, networked machines are easier to maintain and are easier to connect to
enterprise data acquisition systems.
Along with this commoditization of high-technology hardware comes
increasing familiarity. Because of these increased confidence levels, factory
owners are more receptive to using new technologies than before and there's
more confidence in systems integrators in general to apply those technologies.
But how do customers know whether a particular integrator is qualified to
tackle a complex technical task?
The Control System Integrators
Assn. is a nationwide organization of member companies committed to sharing
best practices in the industry. The CSIA's certified member program requires
applicants to pass an intensive audit process that measures performance against
benchmarking criteria in eight business areas - General Management, Human
Resources Management, Project Management, System Development Lifecycle, Quality
Assurance Management, Supporting Activities, Financial Management and Business
Development Management. By looking for CSIA-certified integrators, machine
builders and owners can be assured that the new technologies they deploy will
be applied correctly to serve their needs.
Michael Gurney is the co-CEO at Concept Systems. He can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.