What’s So Smart About a Smart Camera?

Smart “things” are coming into the consumer market daily. If one Googles “Smart – Anything” they are sure to come up with pages of unique products which promise to make life easier. No doubt, there was a marketing consortium somewhere that chose to use the word “smart” to describe a device which includes many and variable features. The smart camera is a great example of one such product where its name only leads to more confusion due to the relative and ambiguous term used to summarize a large list of features. A smart camera, used in many manufacturing processes and applications, is essentially a more intuitive, all-in-one, plug-and-play, mid-level technology camera.

OK, so maybe the marketing consortium is on to something. “Smart” does indicate a lot of features in a simple, single word, but it is important to determine if those smart features translate into benefits that help solve problems. If a smart camera is really smart it should include the following list of benefits:

  • Intuitive: To say it is easy to use just doesn’t cut it. To say it is easy for a vision engineer to use doesn’t mean that it is easy for an operator, a controls engineer, production engineer, etc. The camera should allow someone who has basic vision knowledge and minimal vision experience to select tools (logically named) and solve general applications without having to consult a manufacturer for a 2 day on-site visit for training and deployment.
  • All-In-One: The camera should house the whole package. This includes the software, manuals, network connections, etc. If the camera requires an external device like a laptop or an external switch to drive it, then it doesn’t qualify as smart.
  • Plug-and-play: Quick set up and deployment is the key. If the camera requires days of training and consultation just to get it up and running, then it’s not smart.
  • Relative technology: Smart cameras don’t necessarily need to have the highest end resolution, memory, or processing speed. These specs simply need to be robust enough to address the application. The best way to determine that is by conducting a feasibility study along with the manufacturer to make sure you are not paying for technology that won’t be needed or used.

Ultimately, a lot of things can be described as “smart”, but if you can make an effort to investigate what smart actually means, it’s a whole lot easier to eliminate the “gotchas” that tend to pop up at the most inopportune times.

Note: As with any vision application, the most important things to consider are lighting, lenses and fixtures. I have heard vision gurus say those three things are more critical than the camera itself.

Inspection, Detection and Documentation – The Trifecta of Work in Process

As the rolling hills of the Bluegrass state turn from frost covered gold of winter to sun splashed green of spring, most Kentuckians are gearing up for “the most exciting two minutes in sports”, otherwise known as The Kentucky Derby. While some fans are interested in the glitz and glamour of the event, the real supporters of the sport, the bettors, are seeking out a big payday. A specific type of wager called a Trifecta, a bet that requires picking the first three finishers in the correct order, traditionally yields thousands, if not tens of thousands, of dollars in reward. This is no easy feat.  It is difficult to pick one horse, let alone three to finish at the top. So while the bettors are seeking out their big payday with a trifecta, the stakeholders in manufacturing organizations around the globe are utilizing the trifecta to ensure their customers are getting quality products. However, the trifecta of work in process is valued in millions of dollars.

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Work in process, or “WIP”, is an application within manufacturing where the product is tracked from the beginning of the process to the end. The overall goal of tracking the product from start to finish is, among other things, quality assurance. In turn, ensuring the product is of good quality creates loyal customers, prevents product recalls, and satisfies regulations. In a highly competitive manufacturing environment, not being able to ensure quality can be a death sentence for any organization. This is where the trifecta comes back into play. The three processes listed below, when used effectively together, ensure overall product quality and eliminate costly mistakes in manufacturing.

  1. Inspection – Typically executed withWorkinProcess Trifecta a vision system. Just like it sounds, the product is inspected for any irregularities or deviation from “perfect”.
  2. Detection – This is a result of the inspection. If an error is detected action must then be taken to correct it before it is sent to the next station or in some cases the product goes directly to scrap to prevent the investment of any additional resources.
  3. Documentation – Typically executed with RFID technology. The results of the inspection and detection process are written to the RFID tag. Accessing that data at a later time may be necessary to isolate specific component recalls or to prove regulatory compliance.

Whether playing the ponies or manufacturing the next best widget, the trifecta is a necessity in both industries. Utilizing a time tested system of vision and RFID technology has proven effective for quality assurance in manufacturing, but a reliable system for winning the trifecta in the derby is still a work in process.

To learn more about work in process, visit www.balluff.com.

Passive RFID Still the Way To Go For Work In Process (WIP)

With the rapid evolution of manufacturing technology it’s pretty tough to keep up with the latest and greatest products designed to help automate the manufacturing process. The big “buzz” surrounding RFID about a decade or so ago was Wal-Mart declaring that their top one hundred vendors would be required to tag every single item with an RFID tag. Well, that never came to fruition. Around the same time there was a lot of talk about active RFID systems as a new technology for work in process. Well, that didn’t ever quite materialize either.

While the active systems certainly have made an impact on yard and container management applications, passive RFID still rules the roost in WIP. In essence, the main difference between passive and active RFID is active tags require a battery which helps tagsto yield a much larger read range. One can imagine the benefits of an extremely long read range in a shipping yard, but on a production line the engineers are just fine with mounting the read head within a few inches of the work pieces. Eighty to ninety percent of the new WIP applications that we deal with still require High Frequency (HF) technology.   The other ten to twenty percent are using Ultra-High Frequency (UHF) which is still passive technology, just a longer read range. This is usually the case where the actual item being built is very large and it is very difficult to place a HF reader within inches of the work piece.

Ultimately, using active RFID for work in process is similar to using a sledge hammer to put a nail in a wall. It is simply overkill. So, while automation technology is on a course of change, it is clear that some of the “old faithful” equipment is still adequately addressing the needs on the production line.

To learn more about active vs. passive RFID tags, click here.

Who Has Access to Your Machine Controls?

If you can provide a list of people who have authorized access to your machine controls, then you are ahead of the game. If you can truly ensure that only the people on that list are accessing the machine and not sharing their credentials, then you are way ahead of the game.

Limiting access to the controls of a machine is certainly not a new concept. I see many organizations still using a mechanical key system for override or start up.  According to multiple controls engineers, the main issue with that is people share, copy, and misplace these keys on a regular basis. In this case, just about everyone on the plant floor would have access to the controls of any machine.

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Just about all of us carry a device that allows us to enter and exit our buildings. Whether it be a badge or a key fob, the technology is the same. RFID adds accountability to machine access control.  For example: Jane, the team lead, has full authority to make changes in the control system. The production line comes to a screeching halt and needs to be restarted. In order to restart the machine, Jane has to present her RFID badge to a reader near the controls and she is then given access to make some adjustments within the machine. When Jane authenticates into the machine, the date, time, and Jane’s ID can be recorded. This adds full accountability to the controls and deters Jane from giving John her badge to let him restart the machine.  If John makes unauthorized changes he makes them in Jane’s name.

Access control has become a popular solution in the last few years as machines have become more critical to operation.  Like most RFID applications there are multiple ways to address this.  The key is to select a vendor who has a core competency in the industrial space with knowledge of industrial control systems.

To learn more about how RFID technology controls machine access click here or visit www.balluff.com.

RFID in the Manufacturing Process: A Must-Have for Continuous Improvement

There is quite an abundance of continuous improvement methodologies implemented in manufacturing processes around the globe. Whether it’s Lean, Six Sigma, Kaizen, etc., there is one thing that all of these methodologies have in common, they all require actionable data in order to make an improvement.  So, the question becomes: How do I get my hands on actionable data?

All data begins its life as raw data, which has to be manipulated to produce actionable data. Fortunately, there are devices that help automate this process. Automatic data collection (ADC), which includes barcode and RFID technology, provides visibility into the process. RFID has evolved to become the more advanced method of data collection because it doesn’t require a centralized database to store the data like barcode technology. RFID stores the data directly on the product or pallet in the process, which allows for much more in-depth data collection.

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RFID’s greatest impact on the process tends to be improving overall quality and efficiency. For example, Company X is creating widgets and there are thirty-five work cells required to make a widget. Between every work cell there is a quality check with a vision system that looks for imperfections created in the prior station. When a quality issue is identified, it is automatically written to the tag.  In the following work cell the RFID tag is read as soon as it enters the station. This is where the raw data becomes actionable data. As soon as a quality issue has been identified, someone or something will need to take action. At this point the data becomes actionable because it has a detailed story to tell. While the error code written to the tag might just be a “10”, the real story is: Between cells five and six the system found a widget was non-conforming. The action that can be taken now is much more focused. The process at cell five can be studied and fixed immediately, opposed to waiting until an entire batch of widgets are manufactured with a quality issue.

Ultimately, flawless execution is what brings success to organizations.  However, in order to execute with efficiency and precision the company must first have access to not only data, but actionable data. Actionable data is derived from the raw data that RFID systems automatically collect.

Learn more about RFID technology at www.balluff.com.

 

The Benefits of using RFID or Barcode for E-Kanban or Automatic Replenishment

Electronic Kanban (E-Kanban) is a messaging system that uses a mix of technology to trigger the movement of components and materials within a manufacturing facility. Electronic Kanban differs from traditional Kanban in that it uses technology to replace traditional elements, such as Kanban cards with barcodes and RFID.

A typical electronic Kanban system will see inventory marked with barcodes or RFID. The inventory is scanned at various steps in the manufacturing process to signal usage levels that are sent back to an ERP system for replenishment. This method ensures a constant flow of material while keeping inventories to a minimum.

An additional benefit of E-Kanban is the integration of outside suppliers through an ERP system. By relaying this information, the entire supply chain can be optimized for Just-In-Time inventory flow.

Benefits include:

  1. Reduce inventory levels, carrying cost
  2. Savings in material transfer, labor cost
  3. Increase in inventory replenishment, decrease down time and line stoppage due to stock out

Automatic replenishment, Ekanban, and end-to-end pull, are all names that describe a system in which parts and sub-components are automatically replenished in a manufacturing environment. While most manufacturing organizations have some form of replenishment system in place, I have found that just about every company does it differently. While some are more effective than others, the ones that truly want to automate the process utilize automatic identification.

For more information, visit www.balluff.com.

For RFID Applications, Think Throughput

A common request from many engineers I talk to is the need for a “faster” RFID read/write system.  Usually, this is due to the fact they are increasing their overall line speed and decreasing the amount of time that a work in process item dwells in one station.  This is a good thing.  We all want to make more widgets faster. However, in addition to increasing the number of widgets that come off the production line and the rate at which they come off, the demand for quality has increased significantly. This is also a good thing. This certainly leads to a win-win between the manufacturer and the consumer. As the demand for quality increases so does the amount of data. Statistical process control, lineage data, build data, etc. are represented by large amounts of data. So the tag has to have enough memory and the reader has to have enough speed to keep up with the process. The amount of data transferred over a period of time is called throughput.

In RFID readers/writers, throughput is usually represented as bytes or kilobytes of data per second or milliseconds. The read/write speeds of all RFID systems are related to the amount of data being read or written to the tag. So, if high throughput is a requirement, a feature to look for in the reader/writer is the buffer size. I don’t want to get too deep into the technical weeds of data transfer, bit rates, baud rates, etc. so I will explain it from a marketing guy’s perspective. Think of an RFID system as a data delivery system. In this delivery system an imaginary tractor-trailer is what delivers the data from the reader to the tag and the tag to the reader. The trailer represents the aforementioned buffer.  The trailer or buffer can hold a specified amount of data, 32Bytes, 64Bytes and so on. This is determined by the manufacturer of the system. Semi trucks_blogTherefore, there may be two systems that operate at the same speed, but have a totally different throughput.  Back to the tractor-trailer example, there can be two semi’s going down the road at the same speed but one has a trailer that is half the size of the other and can only carry half as much product(data in this case). So in order to transfer the same amount of data, the half-size trailer has to make two trips (cycles) whereas the larger trailer makes only one. In a case where the amount of data that needs to be transferred is multiple thousands of bytes or kilobytes, that buffer size becomes more important because the more cycles or trips that have to be completed the slower the transfer.

Ultimately, speed is a relative term in the world of moving data from one point to another. In order to future-proof your production line, look a little deeper into the features of the system to make sure you’re investing in technology that is not only fast, but fast and moves a lot of data.

For more information, visit www.balluff.com.

 

Make sure your RFID system is future-proof by answering 3 questions

With the recent widespread adoption of RFID technology in manufacturing plants I have encountered quite a number of customers who feel like they have been “trapped” by the technology. The most common issue is their current system cannot handle the increase in the requirements of the production line. In a nutshell, their system isn’t scalable.

Dealing with these issues after the fact is a nightmare that no plant manager wants to be a part of. Can you imagine installing an entire data collection system then having to remove it and replace it with a more capable system in 3 years or even less? It’s actually a pretty common problem in the world of technology. However an RFID system should be viable for much longer if a few simple questions can be answered up front.

  1. Is decreasing production time an objective of your organization? I assume the answer to this is yes in most cases. Decreasing production time means an increase in line speed which means the RFID system has to be able to read and write faster. Some RFID systems are designed for reading a tag while the part is static or sitting in front of the reader for a period of time, while others are designed for reading a tag dynamically as it flies by the read head. Taking the time to determine if a system is capable of reading on the fly is worth the extra research time to avoid the “trap”.
  2. Will you use more data in the future than you do today? Basically, will you need to write more data to the tag as the line matures? That seems like another no-brainer considering the huge demand for data storage in other realms of our life. Countless times I have heard customers say all they want to write to the tag is a four digit identifier and a year later they want to add quality information, lineage data, build data, process data and so on to the tag. Couple that with an increase in line speed and now you are talking about some serious throughput. It is imperative to make sure the tag has the necessary capacity and the reader has the necessary cycle time to handle the increase in demand for throughput.
  3. Will you ever expand the line to have more read/write stations? This is a big one especially in quality intensive applications where multiple inspections throughout the process are required. The critical error here is lack of foresight into the networking capabilities of the system. Whether the processor is capable of handling multiple readers or it is just a single read point solution it is important to know how the system is expanded. Some systems are expanded by daisy chaining processors which is less complicated than adding additional switching equipment to expand the system.

None of us are capable of telling the future, but we can put a pretty good plan together to accommodate growth. Keep it simple and ask as many questions as you can dream up before you pull the trigger. Just make sure the three questions above are addressed and the technology trap can be avoided.

To learn more about RFID solutions visit www.balluff.com.

Identification technology for Work In Process applications is evolving

wipI have had countless conversations over the years regarding barcode vs RFID. Most of those discussions I explained that both technologies have their own unique set of features and benefits and it is rarely the case where they are competing. I still stand by that general argument except when it applies to Work In Process applications. Looking back over the last four to six years there is evidence of a major evolution from barcode to RFID in the production process.

I guess the next question is why is this happening? I am not sure I have the definite answer, but there are a couple consistent factors that tend to come up when we are installing RFID in place of barcode:

Automation – True automation means there are no manual processes. When an operator has to pull a trigger on a barcode scanner the scan is not automated. Even with fixed barcode readers the barcode will sometimes need to be presented to the reader by an operator holding the part. With fixed RFID scanners the part is automatically scanned even without a direct line of sight and even in poor lighting conditions.

ROI – At first glance a barcode solution may seem to be more cost effective than RFID. However, things that need to be taken into account when going the barcode route are: specialized lighting, data management, longevity of the barcode in a harsh environment, etc. With RFID the tags can be read in complete darkness, the data can be managed locally, and the tags are built to survive harsh conditions. In addition, the cost of paper RFID labels has become manageable in the last couple years.

This is definitely something I will be keeping my eye on going forward. With a renewed focus on automation, identification technology will become more and more important as we move toward true automation.

To learn more about industrial RFID systems visit www.balluff.us.

Demand the Best from Your RFID Partner

RFIDThat seems like a no-brainer statement, but often I find myself talking to customers who are frustrated with their current vendor for a myriad of reasons. An RFID project can require a pretty decent chunk of capital investment so when something doesn’t go as planned people start looking for answers immediately. This usually presents a great opportunity for us to go in and save the day, but it’s hard for me to ignore the time, money and resources that were wasted. Having witnessed this on several occasions I have concluded that there are a large number of RFID companies who are niche suppliers, but there are very few who can qualify as an RFID Partner. The RFID partner helps ensure success from idea to implementation to future expansion. That said, here is a list of things to consider prior to discussing your application with an RFID company:

  • Does the partner offer hardware that communicates over USB, Serial, TCP/IP, Ethernet/IP, Profinet/Profibus, CC-Link, Ethercat, etc?
  • Does the partner offer a wide range of form factors of readers, tags, and antennae?
  • Does the partner build hardware for multiple frequencies?
  • Is the partner willing to build custom equipment just right for your application?
  • Does the partner offer support before, during and after the project?
  • Does the partner have a core competency in the application?
  • Can the partner meet application specs such as, high temperatures, high speed reading on the fly, storing and reading large amounts of data, high ingress protection rating, etc.?
  • Does the partner develop and design products which are scalable and easily expandable?

If you can answer yes to all of these questions then chances are you are pretty well set. With such a mature technology there are many ways for RFID companies to set themselves apart from one another. However, there are only a few who are willing to do what it takes to be considered a partner.

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