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Now we're talking...

Now we're talking...

One of factory automation's 'dream' scenarios is within everyone's grasp, says Spencer Goldsmith, SICK (UK) manufacturing segment manager, outlining the benefits of new developments in inter-device connectivity that are heralding a new communications age.


Humans are commonly accepted to have five senses, sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. But what if each sense was operated by a separate brain that had developed and evolved differently from the others, with one master brain controlling them all?

The separate brains might find it difficult to talk to each other and the master brain might have to do a lot of translation and information juggling to make sure what was heard corresponded with what was seen; errors, slow reactions and even a risk to human survival could result.

Yet I can type these words rapidly with the touches on the keyboard, reproducing what I am thinking and visualising, and the cup of coffee on my desk smells, tastes and looks appetising.

Why handicap factory comms networks?
Automated processes to control, track and monitor products in modern high-speed manufacturing depend on scanning sensor devices that read and communicate data in a number of different languages. But the 'senses' in most semi-automated to fully-automated manufacturing set-ups are still held back in the relative dark ages of poor connectivity compared with what we humans can do.

The data the sensors provide is relayed to the factory control system, providing all the information required to manage the flow of product from raw material to palletised goods and to control the quality of all processes including labelling and packing. The data is usually also attached to the finished goods to facilitate onward distribution and sale.

Each of the three main scanning technologies - radio frequency identification (RFID), barcode readers and camera based devices - offers specific features and benefits. An integrated factory-wide system seeks to optimise the mix in terms of performance and cost-effectiveness. In reality, most factories will operate a legacy of different technologies. Arguments which seek to convert all sensing operations to one type of technology usually come from manufacturers who only sell and understand one type of technology.

Speaking a common language
So it would be extremely beneficial if all these sensors communicated in the same language with the factory-wide control network, both for data and for diagnostics, wouldn't it?

Unfortunately, up until now, none do; in fact, it is the sad case that even upgraded models of the same scanner often do not speak the same language, so that replacing an old device could mean replacing all the old models of that device, or adding a new interface, patch, PLC or firmware just for the new device. A plethora of additional software, firmware and hardware has added unrequired complexity to many factory LANs with associated risk, downtime, errors and slow-downs.

And until a producer of all these sensor devices was prepared to stand back and look at it from the factory operator's point of view, then that was the general development method for sensing/scanning devices; many different ways at once with little reference to each other. So what does the factory operator really want from an automated control network? Minimum error, maximum speed, maximum transparency for all data inputs and associated diagnostics, minimum risk and complete control of up and downtime. How can this dream scenario be achieved in the real world? After all, it is seldom possible logistically or financially to start a major process completely from scratch. Indeed, plant engineers are usually required to design or upgrade a plant on a lean manufacturing basis, without over-fulfilling hardware specifications unless there is a very compelling reason.

The solution to meeting the operator's needs is actually startlingly simple. For each of these scanning sensor technologies, use a datacomms platform that is both common to them all and can communicate with factory net protocols. Additionally, the platform must be capable of near infinite development, to allow new technologies and new models to communicate with the existing.

Common solution
Developers at SICK have come up with a solution, which we believe to be ahead of other product identification and data reader systems by offering seamless connectivity between SICK barcode readers, camera devices and RFID interrogators as the first, and currently only, complete connectivity interface on the market.

Superior communication perfor-mance can be achieved, for example, by using the identical and powerful IDpro platform for the SICK CLV600 laser barcode scanner devices, the Lector(r)620 1D/2D image-based code reader and the leading RFID interrogator RHF620. This ensures that all product identification equipment in a typical processing chain including packaging, logistics and general manufacturing, works smoothly together without interruption. With barcode readers, camera based systems and RFID included under the single IDpro umbrella, much effort, error and downtime can be eliminated. Experience by users in the first few months of availability has proved the concept in practice and more readers are being added with IDpro, such as the newly launched SICK Lector(r)620 OCR which combines datacode reading with optical character verification in one device.

Delivering benefits
The development of IDpro leapfrogs the problems encountered by introducing and operating devices developed at different times with different software versions. It bypasses the variations in upgrades and platforms which result in devices not being able to talk directly to each other.

IDpro relegates to the past the bottlenecks and reading errors, which used to need extra patches, hard converter interfaces and gateways or custom-written translation software. It thereby removes the compromises which slow down network performance or even cause crashes through incompatibility.

There are cost and risk reduction benefits too. There is no need for expensive additional control interface hardware when integrating a new device into a network, ensuring a better return on investment.

Further, the network data reading capability can be planned and upgraded to suit the task, whether code scanning, 1D/2D cameras or RFID as appropriate to the application. The plant manager is not blackmailed into additional expense through purchasing unnecessarily powerful devices to ensure good communication.

The engineer is also able to develop data information capabilities at a pace that matches the development of the automated process, as the IDpro communication platform is common across different classes of device, enabling a planned upgrade rather than a more risky giant leap of faith.

Only connect
The innovative SICK IDpro software delivers its full data interchange integration, single device configuration and cloning functionality over CAN networks and avoids the software, gateway and converter problems that can plague less enabled data scanning portfolios. The modular connection systems with Ethernet TCP/IP on board enable integration with standard industrial, Ethernet and Profibus networks. IDpro also enables operation with or without PCs.

The two function keys on the device supplemented by the easy to read LED bar graph ensure simple teach-in and local monitoring. Remote operation via PC features SICK's SOPAS cross-technology identical graphical user interfaces, no matter which type of device and a standardised output format (filter, sorter, output formatter). Analysis and diagnostics are identical across devices, too.

Reducing cost, risk and error
As well as ensuring true device interconnectivity including rotatable M12 plug units, IDpro reduces error and downtime. When one of the scanning or reading units goes down, the configuration of the remaining devices can be used to set up the replacement in minutes as all the programming is the same. Use of micro SD memory cards facilitates seamless changeovers, without struggling with new manuals or hoping that devices with different software systems get recognised by each other.
 
Additionally, using the common IDpro platform reduces the pressure on plant operatives to acquire yet another software skillset, ensuring rapid, error-free installation. As all user interfaces are identical, training is simplified using SICK's SOPAS cross-technology tool. The identical diagnostic and event monitors operate across all types of device, allowing rapid interrogation of problems, and the micro SD card allows rapid firmware updates or additional cloning facility.

The development of factory automation need no longer be held back by reluctance to add to the burden of poor communication that can clog a factory network or the cost of investing in whole new sets of the same device. Facilitating improved functionality, and offering less cost of installation, less cost-in-use, less risk and better results, IDpro points the way forward for devices that talk to each other in a common language.
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