Packaging puts vision into perspective

Advanced manufacturing systems are needed to ensure competitive edge

Advanced manufacturing systems are needed to ensure competitive edge

Conard Holton

Smart cameras, sometimes known as vision sensors, combine either CCD, CID, or CMOS sensors and image processors into one unit that provides an alternative to a complete machine-vision system. They lower the cost of integration and relieve the design burden of choosing individual cameras, frame grabbers, and software. Increasingly they are used for quality control and inspection applications on industrial production lines.

The actual number of smart cameras/vision sensors that are being sold is not clear because these companies frequently integrate the components into “solutions.” These solutions could be called “application-specific systems that incorporate vision.” U.S.-based Omron Electronics (Schaumburg, IL), for example, has been restructuring over the past year and increased its focus on packaging and vision, and on combining multiple Omron products into solutions.

Omron Electronics president and COO, Craig Bauer, says that the top 20% of his customer base is driving most of the revenue and, to succeed, companies like Omron must build inspection equipment that delivers a clear increase in productivity. Large retailers such as Kroger, Target, and Wal-Mart now dominate the retail market in an subheadunprecedented way-the top five retailers are twice the size of the top five brands, including Kraft Food and Procter and Gamble. These retailers demand low prices and high quality from their suppliers and demanding track-and-traceability in the supply chain. In addition, the U.S. government is also mandating more tracking and reporting to ensure food safety, and thus vision-based manufacturing equipment requirements are becoming more stringent.

Opportunity knocks

The Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute (Arlington, VA) says there are more than one million packaging machines in North America. Unfortunately, years of corporate downsizing have left fewer experienced packaging engineers and trained maintenance people to build or operate equipment that meets the requirements of the retailers and regulators. As a result, owners and operators of these packaging machines are turning to machinery manufacturers for help, especially since product packaging has become the primary promotional medium for each brand.

Food and beverage producers like Kraft require their packaging machinery to produce a variety of goods and package sizes on the same line. As a result, Kraft needs to automate equipment changeover to reduce time between product manufacturing runs. The company also wants its production lines to adapt to new packaging materials and shapes as well as modular production machines so they can use personnel resources more efficiently.

Kraft is already investing heavily in advanced manufacturing, according to Dragan Filipovic of Kraft’s Global Technology and Quality group. “Our goal is to develop diagnostic tools to maximize line performance and reduce equipment downtime,” he says. “On the factory floor, personnel cannot effectively maintain complex, high-tech machinery, yet a highly flexible manufacturing line requires frequent equipment changeover.”

As part of its technology development strategy, Kraft is developing advanced manufacturing systems (AMS) based on tools and techniques first developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Kraft’s AMS program incorporates vision-based technologies for machine diagnostics, changeover verification, and servicing and training. Filipovic says that Kraft has already deployed one AMS-based machine diagnostics platform at a plant in California. The platform, called Remote Observer of Manufacturing Equipment (ROME), combines two smart cameras with other machine sensors and a PLC system to monitor and record the performance of inefficient machines, analyze the data collected, and present the operator with a diagnosis.

If equipment makers like Omron can team with other manufacturers building automation and control systems to produce cost-effective “solutions,” then companies such as Kraft can continue production in-house rather than outsource production tasks. Machine vision-whether on new or retrofitted equipment-is the key element for inspecting package goods, ensuring that only acceptable goods enter the supply chain.

CONARD HOLTON is editor in chief of Vision Systems Design; e-mail: cholton@pennwell.com.

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