The Intelligent Factory

The question is not “if” manufacturers will embrace wireless sensor networks, but when. Nostradamus does not need to predict the future for this technology. The number of sensors in the market has exploded and will continue to grow. More data is felt today than ever before with smart devices in the home, in the car, and around the factory.

To visualize the future of wireless sensor networks, we need look no further than a new car. If you have been buying a new car over the last five years, you are well aware that every component in the car is monitored by sensors. Tire pressure, oil, airbags, brake pads and location are just a few of the hundreds of components monitored in your car that provide intelligence. That’s why we don’t see as many cars breaking down on the side of the road as we used to. Warnings were given well in advance that there was something to watch out for. New cars today have hundreds of sensors. Cars are safer, they use less fuel, and the new car feeling lasts a little longer.

Manufacturing will follow the same paradigm. As with cars, every aspect of factory operations will be monitored. Real-time data about factory operation will work like a new car. Be warned that equipment begins to show ware before it breaks down unexpectedly preventing unplanned downtime and extraneous energy use. The result of this warning is safer and up-to-date plants that will not be left by the roadside.

Smart sensors make smart factories. Using condition and process monitoring in factories is nothing new, but data availability has never been easier. Wireless systems provide data that is not only real-time, but may not be possible before. Remote locations or hazardous environments will no longer create data black holes; moving assets can be tracked and coordinated easily, so fleets can be managed. Using wireless sensors, a window into a world of information is opened that did not exist before. Cable-free enables robust, fast, and flexible data systems to enhance nearly every process imaginable in environments where precision is critical.

The bottom line is that wireless sensors will be everywhere in the factory. The data they provide is too valuable. Sensor sizes have shrunk, processors deliver more power, and costs continue to fall. The benefits of sensor technology far outweigh the costs. We use a new car as an example of a key indicator of where sensor automation is headed. Most of us have seen and felt its value. It doesn’t take much imagination to visualize the same mechanical and environmental conditions that are monitored in a factory. Wireless sensor networks are the next thing that drives “The Intelligent Factory”.

Industrial Robotics

Industrial robots complete tasks such as painting, welding, assembly and product inspection with speed and precision. They don’t tire like humans and perform repetitive actions reliably without getting bored, which leads to high productivity at low costs. These attributes make industrial robots invaluable to manufacturers in many industries.

Some industrial robots perform repetitive actions without variation, as in typical ‘pick and place’ applications. These actions are determined by programmed routines that determine the direction, speed, acceleration, deceleration, and distance of a coordinated series of movements.

Other robots use machine vision systems to perform complex tasks, such as weld inspection and optimization in the automotive industry. This usually involves complex actions and sequences of movements, which the robot itself may even have to identify.

Machine vision systems comprise high-resolution cameras linked to powerful image processing software. They make for efficient handling and control, and work without wear and tear even under demanding manufacturing conditions. Machine vision systems achieve high success rates, and ensure smooth production without manual intervention or supervision, even in unpleasant environmental conditions.

Machine vision has a wide range of applications in industrial automation:

2D Robot Vision

2D vision systems use line-scan or area-scan cameras to capture photographic images that contain width and length, but no depth. By processing these images, they measure the visible characteristics of an object, and feed robotic handling systems data on its position, rotational orientation, and type.

The automotive industry uses 2D vision systems to pick heavy gearboxes from cages, unload cylinder heads from wire mesh boxes, identify axle castings, and detect the position of slide bearing shells.

Automated 3D Position Detection

3D vision systems detect the position and shape of an object in three dimensions using specialised cameras and lasers. They determine the starting point, overall length and rotation of a component, and transmit this data to industrial robots for fast and efficient handling. 3D vision systems enable the automated, reliable handling of different sized objects.

A common application for 3D vision systems is the production of crankshaft castings in the automotive industry, where they instruct robots to position castings ready for the next stage of assembly.

Assembly Inspection

Proper part assembly is essential to any manufacturing process. Poorly assembled parts lead to malfunctioning, unsafe products. Machine vision systems equipped with fast, fixed focus cameras and LED illumination continuously inspect parts during assembly to verify the presence of characteristic features, and instruct robots to remove defect items from the production line.

Characteristic features include screws, pins, fuses, and other electrical components. Machine vision systems also check for missing slots or holes, which can prevent proper assembly. Inspection takes just seconds, even with a huge variety of different parts, allowing manufacturers to maintain high levels of efficiency and productivity.

Machine vision systems for assembly inspection have a wide range of applications. These include checking vehicle components in the automotive industry, verifying fill levels in blisters, chocolate trays, and powder compacts, and ensuring correct label positioning on boxes.

Contour Inspection

Machine vision systems for contour inspection examine the profile of an object using high-resolution cameras and 3D sensors to ensure it is free from deviations (e.g. chips), which affect the shape and thus the function of the product. They also check measurements such as length, width, and radius to ensure they are within set parameters.

Pharmaceutical companies use machine vision systems in automated production lines to inspect injection needles, which are unusable if blunt or bent. Multiple cameras photograph needles as they flow through the system on powered conveyors. Sophisticated computer software analyses the captured images to determine needle sharpness and check the contour of the tube. Industrial robots use this information to separate and discard defect needles.

Injection needles’ size makes them almost impossible to inspect with a naked eye. Machine vision systems can inspect 40 needles per minute with 100% accuracy, speeding up production and reducing costs. Other contour inspection applications include concentricity checks of spark plugs for petrol engines, the measurement of coating structures on capacitor foils, and tooth inspection of saw blades.

3D Seam Inspection

Poorly welded components break, causing products to fail. In the case of automobiles and aeroplanes, this often has disastrous consequences and costs lives. Robotic weld seam inspection and optimization is now the standard in many industries.

Machine vision systems for weld inspection comprise a sensor mounted on a robotic arm. A laser in the sensor projects a line of light across the surface of a component joint, a technique known as laser triangulation. At the same time, a high-speed camera, also housed in the sensor, captures an image of the line as an elevation profile. Through the relative motion of the component and the sensor, the system builds a 3D image of the welded seam surface.

Using this image, a computer checks the seam’s consistency along its length. It accurately detects imperfections like profile variations and pores, which weaken the joint, and instructs a robotic burner to rework or repair seams if necessary.

Machine vision systems store inspection results in a database along with serial numbers, which makes components easy to trace. They work on multiple seams of different types, shapes and sizes, and operate at high speed. The automotive industry uses automated weld inspection and optimization systems extensively to ensure vehicles are of high quality and safe to drive.


Balancing Machine

A balancing machine is a device used to establish and maintain the proper tension of a rotating machine. It is capable of performing tasks through rotation of individual parts as well as sensor detection.

Most balancing machines have a set of solid bases along with bearings and suspension. Most of these machines are also capable of balancing different parts such as rotors for electric motors, turbines, disc drives, fans, pumps, and also propellers.

The use of a balancing machine is quite simple. You should place items that need to be straightened directly onto the bearing either mechanically or manually. Then the unit is rotated using air-drive, end-drive, and also belt-drive. The item then vibrates during rotation. The vibration will make the sensors installed in the machine know the condition of the unbalanced unit. In addition, it can determine the number of shifts required to establish balance. In addition, it can also pinpoint where the load is needed to balance or where the load should be placed.

There are many types of balancing machines available. Two common types are soft bearing and hard bearing machines. Both differ in terms of suspension. Generally, hard-bearing balance machines require the use of lower frequencies to be more durable and flexible. This type of machine is ideal for use with objects of various weights.

On the other hand, soft-bearing machines require higher frequencies so they are less flexible. They require a new calibration for each use. Generally, they are used to balance items with the right properties. Although more time consuming, they are ideal for use for high production jobs.

You can also find vertical balancing machines. They are used primarily to calculate the balance of how far an item can move away from a geometric center in a standing position. Blade balancing machine is also available. It is mainly used to prevent additional correction for some items such as fans, turbines and propellers.

Furthermore, for instruments that are not easily disassembled, a portable balance machine would be ideal for use. Through displacement sensors mounted on the part, they can measure vibrations during operation. Then, they will identify the parts that need to be balanced.