Automation speeds precision products and rapid model changes

A discussion with Andre By of Automation Engineering Inc.

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A discussion with Andre By of Automation Engineering Inc.

VSD:How is Automation Engineering Inc. (AEI) using OEM peripherals?

By: We typically integrate a combination of cameras, image-acquisition hardware, optics, and illumination along with reconfigurable overall process control to deploy customized, flexible automation solutions. We use machine-vision technology in parallel with features such as kinematic couplings to implement quick-change fixturing to support manufacturing for new or modified products and processes over time. The machine-vision aspect of automation implementation is a key enabler but it must be integrated with other sensors and approaches to provide the complete and effective solutions.

Our customers span many industries, including medical devices/life sciences, optoelectronics/photonics, and aerospace/defense. Despite the differences between these industries, a common thread between our customers is a need for high model mix production with precision positioning. Many of our customers are turning to higher levels of automation, not just on the basis of labor savings but to increase yield and overall production uniformity and quality. Many of the processes we automate are also not practical to do manually.

VSD:What market changes are driving the implementation of new technologies?

By: Increasingly, our customers need to be able to automate manufacturing and testing operations for high-mix and low-volume production. High-volume production for many industries is being moved away from North America and Europe and going offshore to countries with lower manufacturing cost. The manufacturing operations that remain will be those that continue to require refinement and flexibility to process and product change.

VSD:What are users demanding from you in the design of such systems?

By: Our customers are looking to us to implement flexible automation solutions that are optimized for their applications, not just standard catalog equipment. This requires that our staff fully understands not just automation equipment design but also the many process and product-design issues to help our customers refine their manufacturing operations. We often provide process prototyping and preproduction build of small volumes of our customers' products before and while we design and implement our flexible automation equipment.

Further, our customers need to be able to reconfigure the manufacturing processes implemented with our automation equipment on their own, quickly and without needing to be programmers. This requires not just reconfigurable vision algorithms and analysis but other features such as reconfigurable illumination and overall process control and sequencing.

VSD:Do you qualify, design, build, or RFP all imaging systems that you sell?

By: We work with a fairly wide range of vendors to be able to select the best combination of components for a given application and at optimal value. Not all applications require the fastest or highest-resolution images, but it is essential to be able to select the mix of hardware that best matches the needs of a given application. Our customers expect and need production-oriented solutions instead of science projects, and we provide them that in part by fully qualifying the components that we use.

VSD:Have you considered using a "system" supplier that has already integrated components into a single "vision solution" system?

By: That approach would typically overly constrain us in providing the optimal complete solution for our customers. Further, we generally need to deliver a complete turnkey system for our customers that integrates not only the machine-vision features but also motion control, overall process control, and an intuitive user interface with features such as machine diagnostics. This requires an overall process-control teaching environment that seamlessly integrates the machine vision with all other aspects of process control such as controlling lasers for drilling, cutting, and welding, as well as other manufacturing processes such as material handling, soldering, and adhesive dispensing and cure.

VSD:Do you see a trend in real-time operating systems for imaging?

By: Typically we see a trend only for higher-speed applications. We have done many of these, but the primary time constraint for our typical customer applications are all of the manufacturing operation steps that need to be completed for a given set of products and processes. The machine-vision acquisition and analysis is thus typically a small portion of the overall cycle time, and having a truly real-time operating system does not make much difference with respect to the vision analysis. That being said, we do need to have a minimum level of determinism in the overall machine control timing and predictability. This requires our machine-control algorithms to incorporate lots of exception checking and handling to have overall machine operation be maximally robust.

VSD:How do you think so-called "switched-fabric" technology such as PCI Express or other serial buses such as FireWire and USB 2.0 affect system design?

By: These and other nonproprietary networking technologies such as Ethernet—which help us implement distributed and extensible machine vision, motion control, and other machine input/output—are very useful. They allow us to deploy overall automation solutions that are less expensive to wire and extend. This helps us decrease deployment and maintenance costs while supporting higher overall system flexibility.

VSD:How do you envision the future of imaging in the industries you serve?

By: Given the abundance of secondhand automation equipment out there right now, many of our customers are asking us to offer them a combination of new automation equipment, as well as retrofitted equipment. When retrofitting equipment, we will typically take a competitor's machine and enhance it to be more versatile by adding machine-vision imaging and our reconfigurable software solutions. This doesn't quite deliver all of the features and benefits of our new equipment, but it does include many of the advantages at a lower price point.

This approach can be especially useful if our customer already owns our competitor's machines and if they have a more limited budget in the near term. We implement retrofits using our same reconfigurable process-teaching software architecture. This will allow the customer to more easily migrate their processes in the future, when budgets permit, to new AEI automation equipment that has higher flexibility and versatility plus other performance benefits.

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ANDRE BY is chief technology officer of Automation Engineering Inc. (Wilmington, MA, USA;, which he founded in1990. Previously, he was a group manager for the Automated Systems Group at Ingersoll-Rand. By has a B.S. in mechanical engineering and a B.S. in aerospace engineering from the University of Michigan and an M.S. in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Editor in chief Conard Holton talked to him about automated-manufacturing challenges.

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