Design of a turnkey vision-guided bowl feeder cell

In short :

  • Skye Automation Inc., a provider of automated solutions for control, electromechanical, safety, machine vision and sensor applications, orchestrates a turnkey bowl feeder system for an automotive component supplier.
  • Skye Gorter, Founder and President of Skye Automation, discusses the design considerations his team made to meet the requirements of a flexible pre-built vision-guided automation cell.
  • In this application, the design team chose to use a FlexiBowl that works in tandem with an industrial robot and a vision system.

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At first glance, the work of sorting parts may seem like a singular exercise. In effect, this affects the entire scope of an assembly system. The installation of a coin sorting and feeding system is incomplete without modification and optimization of peripheral equipment.

Parts feed systems serve a wide range of industries – from high-speed packaging, food and beverage, electronics and metalworking to automotive and pharmaceuticals – where volume and scalability are crucial. For small and medium manufacturers, a flexible system capable of orienting and feeding multiple styles of parts is also a priority.

Apart from manually feeding parts along a conveyor system, there is a range of automated feeding solutions, including vibratory bowls, bin picking systems and flexible feeding systems, and making the best choice is essential to the success of every project. Without exception, exceptional quality, high feed rates, reliability and easy maintenance are must-have features.

According to Skye Gorter, industrial automation specialist and founder/president of Skye Automation, based in Stirling, Ontario, Canada.

In a recent solution, Skye Automation was tasked with configuring an end-to-end automated bowl feeder solution that could perform dimensional and quality inspections on a range of components for an automotive component supplier (Tier 2).

“The challenge was getting food,” Gorter explained. “Parts were not fed well through a traditional vibrating bowl, nor [the client] have the high volumes to justify a vibrating bowl, as that would require a dedicated machine. We therefore developed a specific application around the FlexiBowl which could feed various components into a standard inspection station and where we could do a dimensional check on the parts.

Circular system

Unlike a vibrating feeder, a FlexiBowl is a flexible bulk feeder that consists of a rotating plate that relies on the combined actuation of a servo motor and a pulse generator to separate and feed the parts. The brainchild of ARS Automation, an Italian supplier of automation systems, the feed bowl is compatible with robots and vision systems and is suitable for installations that have small volumes and frequent product changes and applications where parts do not pass well through a vibrator. bowl. The feed rate achieved by the FlexiBowl is between 20 and 50 parts per minute and has a high payload, with a total part weight of over 7 kg, according to ARS Automation.

“The Flexibowl just becomes one component of the overall system,” explained Gorter, who co-founded his company with his wife, Rachel, in 2015. The company provided a way to channel the vision integration experience Gorter’s industrial design and evolved into a machine design. and construct the operation.

Drop, Separate, Pick, Recirculate

In a typical coin feed scenario, a hopper deposits coins onto the surface of a circular infeed bowl, which uses the principles of bi-directional rotation and a pulse generator to separate and stabilize coins. A vision system (camera) takes a photograph of the components before an algorithm identifies the location of the objects on the disc. These coordinates are relayed via communication ports (operated via Ethernet or I/O) to a robot for the pick and place sequence.

Gorter pointed out that there is a trade-off in the feed rate (it’s “a bit slower”) compared to a traditional vibratory bowl, but the added flexibility, by having a machine that can perform many tasks different, makes up for what it lacks in terms of speed. The Skye Automation customer was looking for a power system that could handle six different families of components, with a 10 PPM cycle rate and dimensional inspection functionality that could ensure components had been formed correctly before being selected and placed.

Along with these specifications, their needs assessment revealed that the design team needed to develop a robot-side automatic tool changer, with a nest for component inspection. On the vision integration side, cameras pointing in two different directions would inspect parts with a high degree of repeatability and accuracy. “We run at around 50 microns for repeatability and dimensional accuracy,” Gorter said.

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Process dynamics

The process of setting up a flexible feeder system (which includes a robot, vision system and bulk feeder) is an analytical process divided into several areas, Gorter said. “One area would be the vision requirements needed for accuracy and product range,” he said. “And then the mechanics are often geared towards what’s required from a vision standpoint.”

Stability and repeatability are two factors that affect vision system design. “We want to avoid ambient influences on the machine vision system as much as possible,” Gorter said. In other words, how the parts are fed, how they are handled, and how they must move are all dependencies that play into the requirements of the mechanical feed system.

For example, autonomous run time (the amount of time an operator can walk away from the machine) can dictate some of the power requirements and part types and shapes, which in turn affect robot orientations, as well as the end of the arm. necessary tools. “And then what those parts need to be powered would dictate the surrounding mechanics, as well as safety and protection considerations,” Gorter said.

For the flexible power system to work as expected, the vision system had to be calibrated on the robot. The vision software is not proprietary, but is a standalone product for which Skye Automation has obtained exclusivity in North America. The software, which Gorter’s team paired with GigE cameras, runs on a Windows IoT computer.

“The components are generic; we simply program the vision using pre-engineered tools designed for advanced machine vision functions,” Gorter said. “Additional functionality is possible through custom scripting tools in MvTec’s HALCON software and adding them for more specialized applications.”

From there, the team used industrial communications from the PC to the industrial components, which are usually Ethernet IP to the robot and Ethernet IP to the FlexiBowl. The software interface becomes the primary controller for integration and communication between devices, Gorter said. Overall, his team was able to come up with a robust solution with a high degree of accuracy and long-term reliability.

Quality and throughput

The Skye Automation design team also designed a versatile tool so the robot could be equipped with an end-effector mounted gripper. A custom vacuum component designed to pick up gaskets needed to be connected to a stud.

The custom joint charger uses the voltage for this application. “We call it tension on the retractor,” Gorter said. “We developed this to specifically feed the product, along with visual guidance to detect the location of the product. The robot is able to correctly identify and pick the seal with a high degree of accuracy. Identifying leaks is an advantage that avoids the assembly of products that do not meet quality standards.

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Price tag

Although the cost to build a turnkey solution depends on the scope of the project and unique requirements, Gorter noted that a starting point is around $200,000.

“In terms of value, this is largely tied to many other factors,” he explained. “For example, in this application, we have eliminated the need for an operator, but we have also provided a repeatable solution and high quality assembly that will eliminate other expenses or costs that may be related to missed quality or assembly errors that go through a manual process.These are often some of the largest and most unforeseen expenses that can reduce the profitability of a small business.While automation gives you reliability in your assembly process, manufacturing, process times as well as your quality.

Depending on the machine, commissioning and maintenance requirements may also differ. The Skye Automation team is increasingly developing stand-alone systems, allowing them to build, test and validate system output before shipping.

Installation and follow-up

One aspect worth noting, Gorter said, is how flexible and highly configurable these implementations can be. “We design and build it so that it can be loaded onto a truck; it ships out and is plugged into a wall and turned on,” he said.

Naturally, the project tapped Skye Automation’s multi-disciplinary skill set, including software development, mechanical engineering, mechatronics and mechanical engineering, and Gorter thanks them for their creativity.

“I’m really proud of our integrators and designers who came up with the concepts, because it’s very unique, it’s personalized, but it’s also very functional and simple when it comes down to the basics,” he said. he declares. “In fact, the first system we built like this went to an overseas customer. Due to COVID-19, we were unable to visit them. So we ordered it remotely.

When the customer then needed to implement new components to accommodate new parts handled by the machine, Skye Automation was able to handle the request seamlessly. “We had remote access to the machine, so we were able to implement new components that weren’t planned during the build phase of the machine,” he said.

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