Securing Your Supply Chain and Beefing Up Traceability


Snake oil is one of the most maligned products in all of history. Synonymous with cure-alls and quackery, it is a useless rip-off, right? Well, no, it’s actually high in the Omega 3’s, EPA, and DHA.

Snake oil fell from prominence because it was all too easy for charlatans to brew up fake oil and pass it off as the genuine article, with sometimes dangerous outcomes.

Today’s customers are smarter than ever and waking up with ever-evolving knockoffs. We are more aware of fake reviews and fake products. Brands that can prove their products are genuine can command higher prices and forge long-standing customer relationships. This starts with securing your supply chain and beefing up traceability.

Securing your brand

Many roads lead to Rome and no single technology will be the one silver bullet to secure your supply chain. That said, RFID technology is likely to play an important role. RFID allows for multi-read without a line of sight, making it a great choice in both production and warehouse/logistics environments. Perhaps more importantly, RFID tags can be encrypted. This adds protection against would-be cheats. The ability to both read and write provides additional flexibility for tracking and tracing in production.

RFID is not the only traceability solution and smart companies will use a combination of technologies to secure their brands. We’ve seen holograms on baseball cards and QR codes on underwear. We’ve seen authorized retailer programs … and RFID on coffee cups and medical devices. As you think through the various options, it’s worth keeping in mind the following 4 questions:

      1. Is the technology secure? Does it support modern cryptographic methods?
      2. Does the solution add value – i.e. improve current processes?
      3. Is the technology future-proof?
      4. Is the technology robust?

Any technology that answers yes to these questions will be well-suited to meet this new market. Brands that stay ahead of the curve will grow and those who fall behind the curve risk ending up in the dustbin – right next to the snake oil.

IO-Link Changeover: ID Without RFID – Hub ID

When looking at flexible manufacturing, what first comes to mind are the challenges of handling product changeovers. It is more and more common for manufacturers to produce multiple products on the same production line, as well as to perform multiple operations in the same space.

Accomplishing this and making these machines more flexible requires changing machine parts to allow for different stages in the production cycle. These interchangeable parts are all throughout a plant: die changes, tooling changes, fixture changes, end-of-arm tooling, and more.

When swapping out these interchangeable parts it is crucial you can identify what tooling is in place and ensure that it is correct.

ID without RFID

When it comes to identifying assets in manufacturing today, typically the first option companies consider is Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID). Understandably so, as this is a great solution, especially when tooling does not need an electrical connection. It also allows additional information beyond just identification to be read and written on the tag on the asset.

It is more and more common in changeover applications for tooling, fixtures, dies, or end-of-arm tooling to require some sort of electrical connection for power, communication, I/O, etc. If this is the case, using RFID may be redundant, depending on the overall application. Let’s consider identifying these changeable parts without incurring additional costs such as RFID or barcode readers.

Hub ID with IO-Link

In changeover applications that use IO-Link, the most common devices used on the physical tooling are IO-Link hubs. IO-Link system architectures are very customizable, allowing great flexibility to different varieties of tooling when changeover is needed. Using a single IO-Link port on an IO-Link master block, a standard prox cable, and hub(s), there is the capability of up to: 

    • 30 Digital Inputs/Outputs or
    • 14 Digital Inputs/Outputs and Valve Manifold Control or
    • 8 Digital Inputs/Outputs and 4 Analog Voltage/Current Signals or
    • 8 Analog Input Signals (Voltage/Current, Pt Sensor, and Thermocouple)

When using a setup like this, an IO-Link 1.1 hub (or any IO-Link 1.1 device) can store unique identification data. This is done via the Serial Number Parameter and/or Application Specific Tag Parameter. They act as a 16- or 32-byte memory location for customizable alphanumeric information. This allows for tooling to have any name stored within that memory location. For example, Fixture 44, Die 12, Tool 78, EOAT 123, etc. Once there is a connection, the controller can request the identification data from the tool to ensure it is using the correct tool for the upcoming process.

By using IO-Link, there are a plethora of options for changeover tooling design, regardless of various I/O requirements. Also, you can identify your tooling without adding RFID or any other redundant hardware. Even so, in the growing world of Industry 4.0 and the Industrial Internet of Things, is this enough information to be getting from your tooling?

In addition to the diagnostics and parameter setting benefits of IO-Link, there are now hub options with condition monitoring capabilities. These allow for even more information from your tooling and fixtures like:

    • Vibration detection
    • Internal temperature monitoring
    • Voltage and current monitoring
    • Operating hours counter

Flexible manufacturing is no doubt a challenge and there are many more things to consider for die, tooling and fixture changes, and end-of-arm tooling outside of just ID. Thankfully, there are many solutions within the IO-Link toolbox.

For your next changeover, I recommend checking out Non-Contact Inductive Couplers Provide Wiring Advantages, Added Flexibility and Cost Savings Over Industrial Multi-Pin Connectors for a great solution for non-contact connectivity that can work directly with Hub ID.

Inductive Sensors and Their Unlimited Uses in Automation

Inductive sensors (also known as proximity sensors or proxes) are the most commonly used sensors in mechanical engineering and industrial automation. When they were invented in the 1960s, they marked a milestone in the development of control systems. In a nutshell, they generate an electromagnetic field that reacts to metal targets that approach the sensor head. They even work in harsh environments and can solve versatile applications.

There are hardly any industrial machines that work without inductive sensors. So, what can be solved with one, two, three, or more of them?

What can you do with one inductive sensor?

Inductive sensors are often used to detect an end position. This could be in a machine for end-of-travel detection, but also in a hydraulic cylinder or a linear direct drive as an end-of-stroke sensor. In machine control, they detect many positions and trigger other events. Another application is speed monitoring with a tooth wheel.

What can you do with two inductive sensors?

By just adding one more sensor you can get the direction of rotational motion and take the place of a more expensive encoder. In a case where you have a start and end position, this can also be solved with a second inductive sensor.

What can you do with three inductive sensors?

In case of the tooth wheel application, the third sensor can provide a reference signal and the solution turns into a multiturn rotary encoder.

What can I do with four inductive sensors and more?

For multi-point positioning, it may make sense to switch to a measurement solution, which can also be inductive. Beyond that, an array of inductive sensors can solve identification applications: In an array of 2 by 2 sensors, there are already 16 different unique combinations of holes in a hole plate. In an array of 3 by 3, it would be 512 combinations.

Using LoRaWan in Industrial Environments?

What are LoRa and LoRaWan? How are they used and are they beneficial in industrial environments?

LoRa vs LoRaWan 

LoRa, which stands for “long range,” is the physical communication layer used by many devices. Although it has a long range, its bandwidth is minuscule compared to a WIFI network. It’s been used to collect weather data from multiple weather stations simultaneously from kilometers away and with minimal battery power.

LoRaWan, which stands for “long range wide area network,” is a protocol that runs on the LoRa communication layer. When a location has no cellphone reception or WIFI/Internet access, LoRaWan can travel kilometers with packets of data consistently with minimal investment.

Benefits of LoRa and LoRaWan

LoRa and LoRaWan technology make it possible to add hundreds of non-timed critical sensors to one LoRaWan gateway. Due to the bandwidth limitations, packets of data need to be sent routinely. A good example of differentiation is sending an instant text message with your phone versus sending a picture that might take more time.

Using LoRaWan serves as a perfect solution for the instantaneous inventory of bulk and measurable stock. Being able to do this will drastically enhance purchasing power and improve overhead reduction. It also eliminates the cost and troubleshooting of wiring, in addition to avoiding cellphone service charges.

The 5 Most Common Types of Fixed Industrial Robots

The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) defines five types of fixed industrial robots: Cartesian/Gantry, SCARA, Articulated, Parallel/Delta and Cylindrical (mobile robots are not included in the “fixed” robot category). These types are generally classified by their mechanical structure, which dictates the ways they can move.

Based on the current market situation and trends, we have modified this list by removing Cylindrical robots and adding Power & Force Limited Collaborative robots. Cylindrical robots have a small, declining share of the market and some industry analysts predict that they will be completely replaced by SCARA robots, which can cover similar applications at higher speed and performance. On the other hand, use of collaborative robots has grown rapidly since their first commercial sale by Universal Robots in 2008. This is why collaborative robots are on our list and cylindrical/spherical robots are not.

Therefore, our list of the top five industrial robot types includes:

    • Articulated
    • Cartesian/Gantry
    • Parallel/Delta
    • SCARA
    • Power & Force Limited Collaborative robots

These five common types of robots have emerged to address different applications, though there is now some overlap in the applications they serve. And range of industries where they are used is now very wide. The IFR’s 2021 report ranks electronics/electrical, automotive, metal & machinery, plastic and chemical products and food as the industries most commonly using fixed industrial robots. And the top applications identified in the report are material/parts handling and machine loading/unloading, welding, assembling, cleanrooms, dispensing/painting and processing/machining.

Articulated robots

Articulated robots most closely resemble a human arm and have multiple rotary joints–the most common versions have six axes. These can be large, powerful robots, capable of moving heavy loads precisely at moderate speeds. Smaller versions are available for precise movement of lighter loads. These robots have the largest market share (≈60%) and are growing between 5–10% per year.

Articulated robots are used across many industries and applications. Automotive has the biggest user base, but they are also used in other industries such as packaging, metalworking, plastics and electronics. Applications include material & parts handling (including machine loading & unloading, picking & placing and palletizing), assembling (ranging from small to large parts), welding, painting, and processing (machining, grinding, polishing).

SCARA robots

A SCARA robot is a “Selective Compliance Assembly Robot Arm,” also known as a “Selective Compliance Articulated Robot Arm.” They are compliant in the X-Y direction but rigid in the Z direction. These robots are fairly common, with around 15% market share and a 5-10% per year growth rate.

SCARA robots are most often applied in the Life Sciences, Semiconductor and Electronics industries. They are used in applications requiring high speed and high accuracy such as assembling, handling or picking & placing of lightweight parts, but also in 3D printing and dispensing.

Cartesian/Gantry robots

Cartesian robots, also known as gantry or linear robots, move along multiple linear axes. Since these axes are very rigid, they can precisely move heavy payloads, though this also means they require a lot of space. They have about 15% market share and a 5-10% per year growth rate.

Cartesian robots are often used in handling, loading/unloading, sorting & storing and picking & placing applications, but also in welding, assembling and machining. Industries using these robots include automotive, packaging, food & beverage, aerospace, heavy engineering and semiconductor.

Delta/Parallel robots

Delta robots (also known as parallel robots) are lightweight, high-speed robots, usually for fast handling of small and lightweight products or parts. They have a unique configuration with three or four lightweight arms arranged in parallelograms. These robots have 5% market share and a 3–5% growth rate.

They are often used in food or small part handling and/or packaging. Typical applications are assembling, picking & placing and packaging. Industries include food & beverage, cosmetics, packaging, electronics/ semiconductor, consumer goods, pharmaceutical and medical.

Power & Force Limiting Collaborative robots

We add the term “Power & Force Limiting” to our Collaborative robot category because the standards actually define four collaborative robot application modes, and we want to focus on this, the most well-known mode. Click here to read a blog on the different collaborative modes. Power & Force Limiting robots include models from Universal Robots, the FANUC CR green robots and the YuMi from ABB. Collaborative robots have become popular due to their ease of use, flexibility and “built-in” safety and ability to be used in close proximity to humans. They are most often an articulated robot with special features to limit power and force exerted by the axes to allow close, safe operation near humans or other machines. Larger, faster and stronger robots can also be used in collaborative applications with the addition of safety sensors and special programming.

Power & Force Limiting Collaborative robots have about 5% market share and sales are growing rapidly at 20%+ per year. They are a big success with small and mid-size enterprises, but also with more traditional robot users in a very broad range of industries including automotive and electronics. Typical applications include machine loading/unloading, assembling, handling, dispensing, picking & placing, palletizing, and welding.


The robot market is one of the most rapidly growing segments of the industrial automation industry. The need for more automation and robots is driven by factors such as supply chain issues, changing workforce, cost pressures, digitalization and mass customization (highly flexible manufacturing). A broad range of robot types, capabilities and price points have emerged to address these factors and satisfy the needs of applications and industries ranging from automotive to food & beverage to life sciences.

Note: Market share and growth rate estimates in this blog are based on public data published by the International Federation of Robotics, Loup Ventures, NIST and Interact Analysis.

Picking Solutions: How Complex Must Your System Be?

Bin-picking, random picking, pick and place, pick and drop, palletization, depalletization—these are all part of the same project. You want a fully automated process that grabs the desired sample from one position and moves it somewhere else. Before you choose the right solution for your project, you should think about how the objects are arranged. There are three picking solutions: structured, semi-structured, and random.

As you can imagine, the basic differences between these solutions are in their complexity and their approach. The distribution and arrangement of the samples to be picked will set the requirements for a solution. Let’s have a look at the options:

Structured picking

From a technical point of view, this is the easiest type of picking application. Samples are well organized and very often in a single layer. Arranging the pieces in a highly organized way requires high-level preparation of the samples and more storage space to hold the pieces individually. Because the samples are in a single layer or are layered at a defined height, a traditional 2-dimensional camera is more than sufficient. There are even cases where the vision system isn’t necessary at all and can be replaced by a smart sensor or another type of sensor. Typical robot systems use SCARA or Delta models, which ensure maximum speed and a short cycle time.

Semi-structured picking

Greater flexibility in robotization is necessary since semi-structured bin picking requires some predictability in sample placement. A six-axis robot is used in most cases, and the demands on its grippers are more complex. However, it depends on the gripping requirements of the samples themselves. It is rarely sufficient to use a classic 2D area scan camera, and a 3D camera is required instead. Many picking applications also require a vision inspection step, which burdens the system and slows down the entire cycle time.

Random picking

Samples are randomly loaded in a carrier or pallet. On the one hand, this requires minimal preparation of samples for picking, but on the other hand, it significantly increases the demands on the process that will make a 3D vision system a requirement. You need to consider that there are very often collisions between selected samples. This is a factor not only when looking for the right gripper but also for the approach of the whole picking process.

Compared to structured picking, the cycle time is extended due to scanning evaluation, robot trajectory, and mounting accuracy. Some applications require the deployment of two picking stations to meet the required cycle time. It is often necessary to limit the gripping points used by the robot, which increases the demands on 3D image quality, grippers, and robot track guidance planning and can also require an intermediate step to place the same in the exact position needed for gripping.

In the end, the complexity of the picking solution is set primarily by the way the samples are arranged. The less structured their arrangement, the more complicated the system must be to meet the project’s demands. By considering how samples are organized before they are picked, as well as the picking process, you can design an overall process that meets your requirements the best.

Know Your RFID Frequency Basics

In 2008, I purchased my first toll road RFID transponder, letting me drive through and pay my toll without stopping at a booth. This was my first real-life exposure to RFID, and it was magical. Back then, all I knew was that RFID stood for “radio frequency identification” and that it exchanged data between a transmitter and receiver using radio waves. That’s enough for a highway driver, but you’ll need more information to use RFID in an industrial automation setting. So here are some basics on what makes up an RFID system and the uses of different radio frequencies.

At a minimum, an RFID system comprises a tag, an antenna, and a processor. Tags, also known as data carriers, can be active or passive. Active tags have a built-in power source, and passive tags are powered by the electromagnetic field emitted by the antenna and are dormant otherwise. Active tags have a much longer range than passive tags. But passive tags are most commonly used in industrial RFID applications due to lower component costs and no maintenance requirements.

Low frequency (LF), high frequency (HF), ultra-high frequency (UHF)

The next big topic is the different frequency ranges used by RFID: low frequency (LF), high frequency (HF), and ultra-high frequency (UHF). What do they mean? LF systems operate at a frequency range of 125…135 kHz, HF systems operate at 13.56 MHz, and UHF systems operate at a frequency range of 840…960 MHz. This tells you that the systems are not compatible with each other and that you must choose the tag, antenna, and processor unit from a single system for it to work properly. This also means that the LF, HF, and UHF systems will not interfere with each other, so you can install different types of RFID systems in a plant without running a risk of interference or crosstalk issues between them or any other radio communications technology.


Choosing the correct system frequency?

How do you choose the correct system frequency? The main difference between LF/HF systems and UHF systems is the coupling between the tags and the antenna/processor. LF and HF RFID systems use inductive coupling, where an inductive coil on the antenna head is energized to generate an inductive field. When a tag is present in that inductive field, it will be energized and begin communications back and forth. Using the specifications of the tag and the antenna/processor, it is easy to determine the read/write range or the air gap between the tag and the antenna head.

The downside of using LF/HF RFID technology based on inductive coupling is that the read/write range is relatively short, and it’s dependent on the physical size of the coils in the antenna head and the tag. The bigger the antenna and tag combination, the greater the read/write distance or the air gap between the antenna and the tag. The best LF and HF RFID uses are in close-range part tracking and production control where you need to read/write data to a single tag at a time.

UHF RFID systems use electromagnetic wave coupling to transmit power and data over radio waves between the antenna and the tag. The Federal Communications Commission strictly regulates the power level and frequency range of the radio waves, and there are different frequency range specifications depending on the country or region where the UHF RFID system is being used. In the United States, the frequency is limited to a range between 902 and 928MHz. Europe, China, and Japan have different operating range specifications based on their regulations, so you must select the correct frequency range based on the system’s location.

Using radio waves enables UHF RFID systems to achieve a much greater read/write range than inductive coupling-based RFID systems. UHF RFID read/write distance range varies based on transmission power, environmental interference, and the size of the UHF RFID tag, but can be as large as 6 meters or 20 feet. Environmental interferences such as metal structures or liquids, including human bodies, can deflect or absorb radio waves and significantly impact the performance and reliability of a UHF RFID system. UHF RFID systems are great at detecting multiple tags at greater distances, making them well suited for traceability and intralogistics applications. They are not well suited for single tag detection applications, especially if surrounded by metal structures.

Because of the impact an environment has on UHF signals, it is advisable to conduct a full feasibility study by the vendor of the UHF RFID system before the system solution is purchased to ensure that the system will meet the application requirements. This includes bringing in the equipment needed, such as tags, antennas, processors, and mounting brackets to the point of use to ensure reliable transmission of data between the tag and the antenna and testing the system performance in normal working conditions. Performing a feasibility study reduces the risk of the system not meeting the customer’s expectations or application requirements.

Selecting an industrial RFID system

There are other factors to consider when selecting an industrial RFID system, but this summary is a good place to start:

    • Most industrial RFID applications use passive RFID tags due to their lower component costs and no battery replacement needs.
    • For applications requiring short distance and single tag detection, LF or HF RFID systems are recommended.
    • For applications where long-distance and multi-tag detection is needed, UHF RFID systems are recommended.
    • If you are considering UHF, a feasibility study is highly recommended to ensure that the UHF RFID system will perform as intended and meet your requirements.

Click here to browse our library of Automation Insights blogs related to RFID.

IO-Link Benefits in Robotic Weld Cell Tooling

By Scott Barhorst

Working previously as a controls engineering manager in robotic welding, I have seen some consistent challenges when designing robotic weld cell systems.

For example, the pre-engineered-style welding cells I’ve worked with use many types of tooling. At the same time, space for tooling and cabling is limited, and so is the automation on board, with some using PLC function and others using a robot controller to process data.

One approach that worked well was to use IO-Link in the systems I designed. With its simple open fieldbus communication interface and digital transmission, it brought a number of benefits.

    1.  IO-Link’s digital signals aren’t affected by noise, so I could use smart sensors and connect them with unshielded 4-pin cables.
    2.  Expandability was easy, either from the Master block or by adding discrete I/O modules.
    3.  IO-Link can use the ID of the block to identify the fixture it is associated with to make sure the correct fixture is in the correct location.
    4.  Cabling is simplified with IO-Link, since the IO-Link Master can control both inputs, outputs, and control valve packs. That means that the only cables needed will be 24V power, Ethernet, weld ground (depending on the system), and air.
    5.  Fewer cables means less cost for cables and installation, cable management is improved, and there are fewer cables to run through a tailstock or turntable access hole.

One system I designed used 1 IO-Link Master block, 3 discrete I/O modules, and 1 SMC valve manifold controlled via IO-Link. This tooling had 16 clamps and 10 sensors, requiring 42 total inputs and control of 16 valves. The system worked very well with this setup!

An additional note: It’s good to think beyond the process at hand to how it might be used in the future. A system built on IO-Link is much more adaptable to different tooling when a change-over is needed. Click here to read more about how to use IO-Link in welding environments.






Add Depth to Your Processes With 3D Machine Vision

What comes to mind first when you think of 3D? Cheap red and blue glasses? Paying extra at a movie theater? Or maybe the awkward top screen on a Nintendo 3DS? Neither industrial machine vision nor robot guidance likely come to mind, but they should.

Advancements in 3D machine vision have taken the old method of 2D image processing and added literal depth. You become emerged into the application with true definition of the target—far from what you get looking at a flat image.

See For Yourself

Let’s do an exercise: Close one eye and try to pick up an object on your desk by pinching it. Did you miss it on the first try? Did things look foreign or off? This is because your depth perception is skewed with only one vision source. It takes both eyes to paint an accurate picture of your surroundings.

Now, imagine what you can do with two cameras side by side looking at an application. This is 3D machine vision; this is human.

How 3D Saves the Day

Robot guidance. The goal of robotics is to emulate human movements while allowing them to work more safely and reliably. So, why not give them the same vision we possess? When a robot is sent in to do a job it needs to know the x, y and z coordinates of its target to best control its approach and handle the item(s). 3D does this.

Part sorting. If you are anything like me, you have your favorite parts of Chex mix. Whether it’s the pretzels or the Chex pieces themselves, picking one out of the bowl takes coordination. Finding the right shape and the ideal place to grab it takes depth perception. You wouldn’t use a robot to sort your snacks, of course, but if you need to select specific parts in a bin of various shapes and sizes, 3D vision can give you the detail you need to select the right part every time.

Palletization and/or depalletization. Like in a game of Jenga, the careful and accurate stacking and removing of parts is paramount. Whether it’s for speed, quality or damage control, palletization/ depalletization of material needs 3D vision to position material accurately and efficiently.

I hope these 3D examples inspire you to seek more from your machine vision solution and look to the technology of the day to automate your processes. A picture is worth a thousand words, just imagine what a 3D image can tell you.

Lithium Ion Battery Manufacturing – RFID is on a Roll

With more and more consumers setting their sights on ‘Drive Electric,’ manufacturers must prepare themselves for alternative solutions to combustion engines. This change will no doubt require an alternative automation strategy for our electric futures.

The battery

The driving force behind these new electric vehicles is, of course, the battery. With this new wave of electric vehicles, the lithium ion battery manufacturing sector is growing exponentially, creating a significant need for traceability and tracking throughout the manufacturing processes.

Battery manufacturing is classified into three major production areas:

    1. Electrode manufacturing
    2. Cell assembly
    3. Finishing formation, aging and testing

These processes require flexible and efficient automation solutions to produce high quality batteries effectively. As such, there are numerous areas that can benefit from RFID and/or code reading solutions. One of the biggest of these is the electrode manufacturing process, specifically on the individual mother and daughter electrode rolls. This is a great application for UHF (Ultra-High Frequency) RFID.

The Need for RFID

The electrode formation process involves numerous production steps, including mixing, coating, calendaring, drying, slitting and vacuum drying. Each machine process generally begins with unwinding turrets and ends with winding ones. A roll-to-roll process.

Two of the three primary components of the lithium ion battery, both the anode and cathode electrode, are produced on rolls and require identification, process step validation and full traceability all the way through the plant.

During the slitting process both larger mother rolls are unwound and sliced into multiple, smaller daughter rolls. These mother and daughter rolls must also be tracked and traced through the remaining processes, into storage and ultimately, into a battery cell.


Working with our battery customers and understanding their process needs, a UHF RFID tag was developed specifically to withstand the electrode production environment. Having a tag that can withstand a high temperature range is crucial, particularly in the vacuum drying lines. This tag is capable of surviving cycling applications with temperatures up to 235 °C. Its small form factor is ideal for recess mounting in the anode and cathode roll cores with an operating range reaching 4 meters.


The tag embedded in the roll core paired with an RFID processor and UHF antenna provides all the necessary hardware in supporting battery plants to achieve their desired objective of tracking all production steps. Customers not only have the option of obtaining read/writes, via fixed antennas at the turrets, but also handheld ones for all storage locations — from goods receiving to daughter coil storage racks within a plant.

This UHF RFID system allows for tracking from the initial electrode coils from goods received in the warehouse, through the multiple machines in the electrode manufacturing process, into the storage areas, and to the battery cell assembly going in the electric vehicle — ultimately linking all battery cells back to a particular daughter roll, and back to its initial mother roll. RFID is on a Roll!