Automation Innovation

Hayley Everett

Hayley Everett reports on the latest process equipment solutions that are automating the manufacturing sector

From human-centred production methods to machine-reliant assembly lines, the manufacturing industry has evolved considerably over the centuries. With the emergence of Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) technologies in recent years, we are now in the midst of another major transition regarding the way we create products, thanks to the digitisation of manufacturing, known as Industry 4.0.

The automation of manufacturing processes is a key step along the manufacturing industry’s path to achieving Industry 4.0, and as such the equipment driving these processes also needs to adapt. Here, we take a look at some of the recent process equipment innovations that are helping to automate production lines.

Automation On The Go

Enabling the digitisation of workflows, the acceleration of warehouse processes and the analysis of machines and vehicles among other tasks, rugged tablets are increasingly becoming a vital inclusion in the professional engineer’s toolbox.

One prime example is the F110 tablet from rugged mobile technology developer Getac, which combines powerful functionality with impressive rugged credentials. Key features of the tablet include a quad-core 11th generation Intel Core i5/i7 processor that delivers high performance and effortless multitasking, while integrated Intel Iris Xe Graphics ensure a rich visual experience in all scenarios. Additionally, comprehensive connectivity options, including WLAN Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5.2, and WWAN 4G LTE/GPS, enable fast data transfer and communication from different locations.

From a rugged design perspective, the F110 boasts MIL-STD-810H and MIL-STD-461G certifications for reliability both indoors and outdoors and in rain or shine. Its maker says the F110 is also one of the only tablets in its class to be IP66 rated, while drop resistance of up to 6 1.8m and a temperature operating range of -29°C to 63°C provides further reassurance in challenging work environments.

The tablet is being used by chemicals developer Evonik to control an autonomous robot tasked with conducting maintenance and inspection operations in critical areas. Throughout the project, the tablet is acting as the main interface between the robot, control software and human operator.

“The popularity of rugged tablets has grown exponentially in recent years, thanks to their winning combination of functionality, reliability and ease of use,” says Paul Waddilove, managing director, UK & Nordics at Getac. “The F110 fully embodies this, helping engineers maximise their productivity regardless of whether they are out in the field, walking the facility or back in the control room.”

Another recent advance in rugged tablets comes from fellow industrial rugged technology developer WeRock Technologies. The company has launched its Rocktab S500 series of fully rugged tablets designed for professional use in the industrial manufacturing, automotive, logistics, public safety and utility sectors, featuring three different screen sizes.

In addition to its rugged design and waterproof housing, the S500 series offers a range of digitisation functionalities to accelerate manufacturing and job site processes. Designed to be a mobile yet fully fledged workstation, the tablets are equipped with the new Windows 11 operating system and powerful energy-efficient Celeron Quad-Core and Jasper Lake generation Intel processors.

Alongside these features, the tablets possess USB ports, front and rear cameras, and 4G, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi capability. Each device can be optionally equipped with a 2D barcode scanner, adding to the automation capabilities on offer.

“The Rocktab S500 series is a great choice for industrial operations,” says Markus Nicoleit, CEO of WeRock Technologies. “It is perfect for those who need full ruggedness but are limited in their budget. The new architecture provides almost five times the performance compared with previous processors in this price segment.

“In fact, it is so powerful that it beats a couple of years old Intel Core i5 processors in speed while consuming even less power.”

Automating Robots

Elsewhere, Absolute Machine Tools and Mitsubishi Electric Automation (MEA) have sought to bridge the gap between collaborative robots, known as cobots, and industrial robot automation cells with their co-designed LoadMate Plus machine tending robotics cell.

A compact, heavy-duty and portable robotic cell, the LoadMate Plus is designed to be easily integrated into CNC machines to provide an automation function that both increases throughput and saves valuable time during the manufacturing process. The plug-and-play cell is capable of loading, unloading and palletising parts in any low-to-high volume mix application, and can handle payloads up to 20kg.

A demonstration version of the cell was on display at IMTS 2022 to show attendees how affordably and simply automation can be achieved for industrial robots across a wide range of applications.

Digital Twins

Taking a slightly different approach to automation is Siemens’ recently introduced Sinumerik One digital native CNC system, which uses digital twin technology to help simulate and test workflows in a completely virtual environment. Claimed to make machine tools more productive, faster, flexible and efficient, the Sinumerik One is designed to help optimise the engineering processes based on consistent, end-to-end workflows.

The data from Siemens’ TIA portal provides the basis for the digital twin of the machine’s automation system, called Create MyVirtual Machine. The digital twin makes it possible to engineer the machine even before real-life prototypes are available, meaning that tasks can be transferred from the real world to the virtual environment to considerably shorten time to market.

Meanwhile, the Run MyVirtual Machine function – the digital twin of the machining process – optimises the machine tool’s capacity utilisation and minimises machine unproductivity.

Customising Industrial Enclosures

Machine and control system design engineers need configurators for individual industrial enclosures to support the customisation of complex enclosure system applications for OEMs and machine builders. Rittal North America’s new RiPanel online enclosure configurator is designed to make it easy for engineers to individually configure such industrial enclosures to save time, prevent errors, increase data saving flexibility and speed up processes through integrated interfaces.

Essentially, the RiPanel online enclosure configurator allows industrial enclosure systems to be more easily planned in 3D and customised with the desired accessories or machining requirements. Alongside its simple configuration process, the system also enables engineers to export the technical data for various configurations as CAD and assembly instructions.

Meeting Unique Requirements

Moving away from automation and towards advances in customisation, and Exair’s new Line Vac air-operated conveyors are designed to provide an efficient method of converting ordinary pipe, hose or tubes into powerful in-line conveyors. The company can customise and tailor Line Vacs to various specifications to accommodate the range of unique problems manufacturers face.

Certain processes may require customisations regarding size, shape and material to ensure the product is a perfect fit for a particular system. The Line Vacs are suited to moving large volumes of material over long distances with minimal compressed air, while material flow rates are easily controlled with a pressure regulator. With no moving parts or electricity, the air conveyors are available in multiple materials and sizes to suit a wide range of applications.

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