Reduce Packaging Downtime with Machine Vision

Packaging encompasses many different industries and typically has several stages in its process. Each industry uses packaging to accomplish specific tasks, well beyond just acting as a container for a product. The pharmaceutical industry for example, typically uses its packaging as a means of dispensing as well as containing. The food and beverage industry uses packaging as a means of preventing contamination and creating differentiation from similar products. Consumer goods typically require unique product containment methods and have a need for “eye-catching” differentiation.

The packaging process typically has several stages. For example, you have primary packaging where the product is first placed in a package, whether that is form-fill-seal bagging or bottle fill and capping. Then secondary packaging that the consumer may see on the shelf, like cereal boxes or display containers, and finally tertiary packaging or transport packaging where the primary or secondary packaging is put into shipping form. Each of these stages require verification or inspection to ensure the process is running properly, and products are properly packaged.

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Discrete vs. Vision-Based Error Proofing

With the use of machine vision technology, greater flexibility and more reliable operation of the packaging process can be achieved. Typically, in the past and still today, discrete sensors have been used to look for errors and manage product change-over detection. But with these simple discrete sensing solutions come limitations in flexibility, time consuming fixture change-overs and more potential for errors, costing thousands of dollars in lost product and production time. This can translate to more expensive and less competitively priced products on the store selves.

There are two ways implementing machine vision can have a benefit toward improving the scheduled line time. The first is reducing planned downtime by reducing product change over and fixturing change time. The other is to decrease unplanned downtime by catching errors right away and dynamically rejecting them or bringing attention to line issues requiring correction and preventing waste. The greatest benefit vision can have for production line time is in reducing the planned downtime for things like product changeovers. This is a repeatable benefit that can dramatically reduce operating costs and increase the planned runtime. The opportunities for vision to reduce unplanned downtime could include the elimination of line jams due to incorrectly fed packaging materials, misaligned packages or undetected open flaps on cartons. Others include improperly capped bottles causing jams or spills and improper adjustments or low ink causing illegible labeling and barcodes.

Cost and reliability of any technology that improves the packaging process should always be proportional to the benefit it provides. Vision technologies today, like smart cameras, offer the advantages of lower costs and simpler operation, especially compared to the older, more expensive and typically purpose-built vision system counterparts. These new vision technologies can also replace entire sensor arrays, and, in many cases, most of the fixturing at or even below the same costs, while providing significantly greater flexibility. They can greatly reduce or eliminate manual labor costs for inspection and enable automated changeovers. This reduces planned and unplanned downtime, providing longer actual runtime production with less waste during scheduled operation for greater product throughput.

Solve Today’s Packaging Challenges

Using machine vision in any stage of the packaging process can provide the flexibility to dramatically reduce planned downtime with a repeatable decrease in product changeover time, while also providing reliable and flexible error proofing that can significantly reduce unplanned downtime and waste with examples like in-line detection and rejection to eliminate jams and prevent product loss. This technology can also help reduce or eliminate product or shipment rejection by customers at delivery. In today’s competitive market with constant pressure to reduce operating costs, increase quality and minimize waste, look at your process today and see if machine vision can make that difference for your packaging process.

Not All RFID is Created Equal: Is Yours Built for an Industrial Environment?

The retail environments where products are sold look nothing like the industrial environments where they are produced (think of the difference between a new car dealership and an automotive manufacturing plant). Yet the same RFID products developed for retail stores and their supply chain operations are still marketed to manufacturers for production operations. These products may work fine in warehouses, but that does not necessarily qualify them as industrial grade.

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So what are the differences between retail and industrial RFID?

Production environments often require a level of ruggedness, performance, and connectivity that only purpose-built industrial equipment can reliably satisfy. For example, general-purpose RFID equipment may have the physical Ethernet port needed to connect to a PC or server, but will not support EtherNet/IP, Profinet or other industrial protocols that run on PLCs and other industrial automation control equipment. Many retail grade readers need to be supported with an additional protocol conversion, which can require external hardware and slow system performance, and adds to implementation time, difficulty, and expense.

When evaluating RFID equipment, it is essential to make the distinction between what is possible for use in the environment and what is optimal and, therefore, more reliable. There are three fundamental qualities to consider that can determine if RFID systems will perform reliably in demanding production environments:

  • Will the RFID system integrate seamlessly with industrial control systems?
  • Will it provide the reliability and speed that production and their information systems tied in require?
  • Can it maintain uptime and performance long term – will it last on the production line?

RFID is often marketed as a “solution,” however in manufacturing operations, it is almost always used as a supporting technology to provide data and visibility to the MES, ERP, e-Kanban, robotics, asset tracking, material handling, quality control and other systems that run in production facilities. Failure to accurately provide data to these systems at the reliability and speed levels they require eliminates the value of using RFID.

The physical environments in industrial and supply chain settings cause RFID technology to perform differently. Tag density can be a consideration for industrial RFID users like retail, but an industrial environment has much more challenging and powerful potential interference sources, for example, the presence of metal found in most industrial products and environments.

When determining whether RFID products are suitable for a specific environment, it is important to look beyond published marketing hype and misleading specifications. Consider the design and construction of the product and how it could be affected by various work processes. Whenever possible, you should test the products where they will be used rather than in a lab or demonstration area, because the actual work location has interference and environmental conditions that may be overlooked and impossible to duplicate elsewhere.

The key attributes that differentiate industrial RFID equipment from supply chain-oriented alternatives include:

  • Native support for industrial protocols;
  • High tag read reliability and the ability to continuously operate at speeds that won’t slow production systems;
  • Durable housing with secure connectors with IP65 or better rating and relevant certifications for shock, vibration and temperature resistance;
  • The ability to support multiple RFID technologies and supporting devices as needed, including sensors, PLCs, IO-Link, and other industrial automation equipment.

Compromising on any of these criteria will likely result in unnecessary implementation time, support, and replacement costs and increase the risk for system failure.

“Team” Spells Success In Traceability

If you’ve ever considered a traceability project, like asset tracking for instance, you’ve probably also done some homework into the different technological ways to implement it, from barcoding to using RFID (radio frequency identification). And possibly, while doing that research, you may have seen some presentations or read some articles or whitepapers that have talked about the “team” of stakeholders required to implement these projects, especially if involving the scale required for a facility, or even multiple facilities. Well if you’re a manager reading this and involved with such an endeavor, I’m writing to tell you, take this stakeholder team thing seriously.

In many respects, there are rational fears in getting a stakeholder team together in the early stages of these projects, like the conceptualization stage for example. These fears include: Blowing the project out of proportion; Creating mission creep; Even derailing the project with the others self-interests. Again, all can be valid and even come true to a certain extent, but the reality is that most, if not all of the time, these same stakeholders will also identify the potential opportunities and pitfalls that will either help build the REAL ROI case, and/or help prevent the unseen wall that will prevent success.

These stakeholders can range from operational management (warehouse to manufacturing, depending on the target), IT, financial, quality, and engineering, just to get the ball rolling. You must always be careful of allowing the project to slip into “decision by committee”, so hold the reins and have the project lead firm in hand. But by bringing their input, you stand to satisfy not only your goal, but likely the shared goals they also have, validating and strengthening the real ROI that will likely exist if traceability is the requirement. You will also likely find that along the way you will bring improvements and efficiencies that will benefit the broader organization as a whole.

Once you’ve established the goal and the real ROI, reinforced by the stakeholder’s inputs, that is the time to bring in the technology pieces to see what best will solve that goal. This is many times were the first mistake can be made. The technology suppliers are brought in too soon and the project becomes technology weighted and a direction assumed before a true understanding of the benefits and goals of the organization are understood. Considering a project manager before bringing in the technology piece is also a great way to be ready when this time comes. When you’re ready for this stage, this will typically involve bringing in the vendors, integrators and so forth. And guess what, I’m certain you’ll find this part so much easier and faster to deal with, and with greater clarity. If you have that clear picture from your team when you bring in your solution providers, you will find the choices and their costs more realistic, and have a better picture of the feasibility of what your organization can implement and support.

Not to kill the thought with a sports analogy, but a team united and pulling for the same goal in the same direction will always win the game, versus each player looking out for just their own goals. So get your team together and enjoy the sweet taste of ROI success all around.

For more information on Traceability visit www.balluff.us/traceability.

RFID ROI – Don’t forget the payback!

traceability_1Just recently, while visiting a customer wanting to implement an RFID asset tracking solution, it occurred to me that ROI (return-on-investment) should always be the ultimate goal for most uses of RFID. What brought this to mind? It was because we were discussing technology before understanding what the ultimate ROI goal was. I’m sure you could say this was failure from a sales perspective, but I’m sure at some point you have also found yourself caught up in the technology seeming so promising and exciting in terms of its benefits, that you lost track of why you were there in the first place. Also, many times, the technology stage is where equipment suppliers and/or integrators are brought in.

As with most projects of this nature, they get started because someone says something like “why don’t we do XXX, it will save us money, time, trouble, loss or get us in compliance” or all of the above and likely more. But this same thought can get lost going through execution. RFID projects are no exception. Many successful RFID implementations show it can bring large benefits in short and long-term ROI not just in asset tracking, but manufacturing, warehousing, supply chain and so on. But the implementor must always keep track of the ROI goal and be willing to share this with their internal stakeholders, supplier and integration partners to be sure everything stays on track and technology does not take over for technologies sake.

Unfortunately the ROI is not always calculated the same for applications. Typically ROI can simply be measured in time period until the investment is paid back or the money saved over a given period of time. The most simplistic way of calculating payback or ROI is: Cost of Project (calculated at the beginning) / Annual Cash Revenues (expected savings) = Payback Period. Unfortunately the rub comes in when calculating the detail in the two factors. This can be because the cost of the project is not totally encompassing and/or revenue does not take into consideration factors like interest costs or variations in production, for example. As this will ultimately become the measure of successful projects, really understanding ROI is critical.

Factors in Annual Cash Revenues are factors the implementer needs to understand and grasp as the reasons for undertaking a project. These factors will typically involve several aspects of their business, including savings from greater efficiency, lower cost in storage or inventory, less scrap, higher quality standards (less failure returns), compliance benefits, etc. In fact, this part is difficult to encompass here in this forum. But Cost of Project has some factors I can point out. In the example I raised in the beginning, the customer needed to not only address the read/write equipment and tags (including handheld’s), but also the cost of installing all the possible variations in tag types used during manufacture, common database/software needed, bringing distributors and field service on board, integration providers costs (internal also), training needs, software licensing, start-up and support cost, and so on. So in a manufacturing line, it starts with the new equipment, but must include the PLC/database programming, pallet modifications, station installation, spare parts, start-up and training for example. In warehousing, it might include new equipment, loss of facility equipment like forklifts or warehouse area, facility modification like electrical for example, ERP and WMS implementation or integration, commissioning and training.

One thing to consider toward understanding these factors before implementing a total enterprise solution, whether in warehousing, supply chain or manufacturing is to consider a pilot or test/trail program to determine as many factors as possible and test the results before committing to the full investment of the complete project.

So in your next project, remember to include your stakeholders and partners in your end goals, try to encompass all the factors and don’t forget the payback!

To learn more about RFID visit us at www.balluff.us/rfid.

UHF RFID, One Size Fits All! – Really?

With the proliferation of UHF (ultra-high frequency) based RFID in the commercial and consumer markets, UHF has been seen as the mainstay now for many low-cost, long-range RFID applications. And in recent years with the desire for longer range application flexibility in the industrial sector, naturally users want to gravitate toward technologies and products with a proven track record. But can you really take the same products developed and used for the commercial and consumer logistics markets and apply them reliably to industrial applications like asset tracking, EKanban, general manufacturing or logistics?
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A Bolt For RFID

In many cases, RFID tags are only as good as the package that carries them. In recent years with the explosion in the use and acceptance of RFID, many different types of tag packaging have become available. In these cases, these new packages have been based around low-cost labels. But when it comes to the industrial use of RFID, strength and reusability are an absolute must and there is a package for that too.

Databolt examples.

This package is called the Databolt™. The Databolt is most likely what you might picture when you hear that name in reference to RFID. It is literally an industrial grade bolt with an RFID tag embedded inside. Usually the tag is located in the head of the bolt. The bolt body is usually made of a type of tooling steel which has been treated or hardened for maximum longevity. In several automotive applications today, the Databolt is screwed into a part, typically metal, programmed with data as needed and then erased and removed only to be taken back to the beginning of the process and used again. But there are new applications where a Databolt can be screwed into a part like an oil or gas valve, cylinder or plate as a bolt for example, and then used as a track and trace method for things like field servicing once the device is installed or in use.

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Survey Says: “UHF RFID works”

To give you an idea of where I’m going to take this, let me ask a few simple questions. Would you buy a mattress without laying down on it to see if it’s comfortable? What about a motor cycle or car? Would you buy one without a test drive? In that same vain, would you want your company to invest in UHF (ultra-high frequency) RFID (radio frequency identification) equipment for a RFID project without anything more than specs if you didn’t have to? I would assume the answers are: “of course not”.
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RFID Embraces The Cloud

One of the biggest advantages of using Radio Frequency Identification in industry and logistics today is the visibility it can provide into the process. With the use of Cloud Computing, that visibility can be achieved with greater flexibility and lower cost.

Cloud Computing provides a means of leveraging shared IT infrastructure and standardized software modules to collect and present RFID data without having to develop, maintain and most importantly, finance a redundant and load balanced infrastructure. Cloud applications also provide visibility and access anytime, anywhere, and on any device.

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