Robots are still looking for a vision

Every two years the International Robots & Vision Show unites robotics and machine-vision vendors within one exhibition. At the show this past June, attendees witnessed robots moving car parts, palettes, and other heavy objects.

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Adding vision to robotic positioning systems remains the expertise of robotic systems vendors and systems integrators.

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Every two years the International Robots & Vision Show unites robotics and machine-vision vendors within one exhibition. At the show this past June, attendees witnessed robots moving car parts, palettes, and other heavy objects. They also learned how to use computer-aided-design (CAD) software to simulate how a robot will perform a specific task. This information enables both experienced and potential users to analyze robot movements and capabilities and predict robot cycle times before deployment.

Today, many robot vendors offer CAD simulation packages. RobotStudio software from ABB Flexible Automation (Auburn Hills, MI), for example, helps developers simulate the design and operation of robot systems on a PC before they are built. Based on the ABB VirtualController, a PC-type software that runs ABB robots in production, the software performs realistic simulations using real-world robot programs and configuration files.

MotoSim simulation software from Motoman (West Carrollton, OH) also can be used for accurate robot cycle-time analysis, cell layout development, and reach studies. Many robotic software products offer systems developers several ways to analyze the action of robots without purchasing the hardware.

In the past, to evaluate a number of robots, developers needed to evaluate software packages from several companies. Fortunately, many robotic companies, including Flow Software Technologies (Newcastle upon Tyne, England), are now producing manufacturer-independent software that simulates different robots from a number of companies using the same software package. Flow Software's Workspace5 incorporates native robot teach pendants into the simulation; this allows experienced users to manipulate a simulated robot on a monitor screen just as if the robot was working on the shop floor.

Like the robotics industry, the OEM image-processing and machine-vision industry also supports a number of vendors that offer PC-based hardware supported by the individual vendor's software. For example, Matrox Imaging (Dorval, Quebec, Canada) offers frame grabbers, image processors, and display controllers that are supported by its Matrox Imaging Library software package. Similarly, Data Translation (Marlboro, MA) sells a machine-vision package, DT Vision Foundry, that supports the company's PCI-based frame grabbers.

Unfortunately, the analogy ends there. At present, no vision or imaging company offers software that allows the user to evaluate or simulate different frame grabbers or image processors before purchasing them. Instead, often the user must evaluate many vendors' software and hardware. This is a long, tedious, and costly process that many systems developers do not have the time to do.

To produce a "universal" image-processing package would, of course, be extremely difficult. It would demand that nearly all manufacturers of machine-vision software agree on certain standards, such as image formats, and allow portions of company code to be used as callable routines from a vendor-independent application programming interface. Potential users of machine vision could then initiate a routine and run it by calling each manufacturer's version of the routine. This approach would save time and money and would help systems integrators produce products more rapidly and with less cost.

Unfortunately, the chance of this happening is negligible. While simulating robotic systems is much easier than ever before, deciding on which vision system to use is much more complicated. As a result, adding vision to robotic positioning systems appears to remain the expertise of robotics systems vendors, such as Adept Technology (San Jose, CA), and sophisticated systems integrators, such as Braintech (North Vancouver, BC, Canada).

by Andy Wilson
EDITOR
andyw@pennwell.com

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