Factory networking needs an affordable vision

May 1, 2003
What is needed is a company-independent software interface that embraces a number of different machine-vision/image-processing software packages.

What is needed is a company-independent software interface that embraces a number of different machine-vision/image-processing software packages.

by Andy Wilson
[email protected]

To reduce the cost and time to market of today's automated machine-vision systems, systems integrators turn to the numerous cameras, frame grabbers, image processors, and software-development tools supplied by OEM vendors. Whereas several systems integrators have been successful in integrating such OEM products in single stand-alone inspection and control systems, there is an increasing need to network such systems.

For example, to inspect bottles for a large glass manufacturer, Saber Engineering (Auburn, CA; www.sabereng.com) installed a system that could later be linked over Ethernet (see Vision Systems Design, April 2003, p. 29). According to Brian Thomas, principal engineer with Saber, the benefits of networking such systems include the control of bottle flow along the production line and remote monitoring and diagnostic evaluation of the production process.

Bridging the gap

To expedite the process of networking such systems, ABB (Norwalk, CT; www.abb.com), Accenture (Hamilton, Bermuda; www.accenture.com), Intel (Santa Clara, CA; www.intel.com) and Microsoft (Redmond, WA; www.microsoft.com) recently formed an alliance to help manufacturers bridge the gap between plant-floor operations and enterprise IT systems. The alliance uses ABB Industrial Technology, an architecture designed to make diverse manufacturing components compatible.

Each element within a plant—including equipments, raw materials, and finished goods—is represented in the automation hierarchy by a dynamic software shell called an "Aspect Object." If, for example, there is a problem with an electric motor somewhere in a process-control system, Aspect Objects allows a technician to select the malfunctioning motor on a computer screen. Then the technician can use the system to display live video of system operation and zoom in on the motor for a preliminary visual inspection With a mouse click, the technician can access necessary information. By clicking on the Aspect Object for any component, the technician can directly access documentation, configuration, and connectivity tools to speed up installation, control, troubleshooting, and life-cycle maintenance.

Already the technology is being used in ABB's Video Historian, a system that provides video-based information that links events to process interruptions. During operation, a video recorder captures process anomalies as they occur. Video records are then slowed down and enlarged to provide details and pictures of the occurrence. This information helps to identify the exact cause of process downtime and the means to correct and avoid repeat occurrences. Networking features allow three users to simultaneously view captured or live video using a local-area network, wide-area network, or the Internet.

Although this method appears satisfactory in theory, implementation may be restricted to large plant-automation systems. "While Microsoft is looking for an application for its BizTalk servers, the company is also trying to force the government to accept its use of XML," says Kevin Supinger, senior software engineer with Saber Engineering. "At the same time, Intel is looking for applications for its Mobile Computing Group. And though ABB is a big player and probably the real driving force, the result will be an expensive solution in a down-turned economy," he adds.

What may be required is a company-independent software interface similar to ABB's Aspect Object concept that embraces a number of different machine-vision and image-processing software packages. Developing such an interface using readily available authoring tools would allow a lower-cost implementation to be offered to a wider variety of systems developers and integrators.

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