7 Common Applications for Cobots

In 2017, collaborative robots (cobots) began to overtake the robotic market. According to BIS Research, by 2021, the collaborative-robot market is expected to grow to approximately $2 billion and 150,000 units. Several industries are looking towards cobots as a way of introducing the new automation future.

Cobots excel because they can function in areas of work previously occupied only by their human counterparts. They are designed with inherent safety features like force feedback and collision detection, making them safe to work right next to human operators. Universal Robots is one of the leaders in the cobot market. The company’s recent white paper listed the most seven common applications for cobots.

Pick and Place

The robot above is a typical example of a pick and place robot. These robots can identify parts or objects and package them accordingly. (Image courtesy of JLS Automation)

Manual pick and place is one of most repetitive tasks performed by human workers today. The mundane nature of the task can often lead to mistakes, while the repeated physical motions can lead to strain or injury. Pick and place applications are a good start for first-time cobot users. A pick and place task is any in which a workpiece is picked up and placed in a different location. This could mean a packaging function or a sort function from a tray or conveyor; the later often requires advanced vision systems. Pick and place functions typical require an end-effector that can grasp the object. It could either be a gripper or vacuum cup effector.

Machine Tending

Machine tending requires a person to stand for long hours in front of a CNC machine, injection-modeling machine, or another similar device and tend to its operational needs. This could be tool changes or replacement of raw materials. The process is long and tiresome for the human operator. Not only do cobots free up the human operator, but a single cobot can also tend to multiple machines, leading to increased productivity. These type of cobot applications may require the cobot to have input and output (I/O) interfacing hardware specific to the machine. The I/O hardware indicates to the robot the next cycle or when material needs to be replenished.

Packaging and Palletizing

A subset of the pick and place is the packaging and palletizing of products. Products before leaving the factory floor need to be properly prepared for shipment. This may include shrink-wrapping; box assembly and loading; and box collating or placing onto a pallet for shipping. These tasks are repetitive and involve small payloads, making them ideal for cobots. Rapid product changeover is key for any business running a high to low mix of volume production. Conveyor tracking is required for this application to synchronize robotic movement with a conveyor. A vision system also may be needed for products with a non-uniform shape.

Process Tasks

Universal Robots is one of the few cobots that have a specially designed welding end-effector. Other cobots have different end-effectors such as glue dispensers for different process tasks. (Image courtesy of Universal Robots)

A process task is any that requires a tool to interact with a workpiece. Common examples are a gluing processing, dispensing, or welding. Each of these process tasks requires a tool to go down a fixed path repeatedly. These process tasks take a significant time to train new employees to obtain the required finish. By using a cobot, the programming can be performed on one unit and copied to others. The cobot also solves the problem of having a worker performing precise and repetitive movements. Traditional welding robot systems, for example, require expertise in robot programming and welding techniques.

The benefit of many cobot systems are the ease of programming either through place and position record methods or traditional CAD/CAM programming, easing the robotic programming and allowing anyone with welding experience to program a cobot. A polyscope interface helps maintain a constant TCP speed. This guarantees the robot deposits material at a constant rate. The end-effectors in these cases are unique as they need to hold a welding torch, sealant, glue, or solder paste.

Finishing Tasks

Finishing tasks performed by human operators require a manual tool and large amount of force. The vibration from the tool can cause injury to the operator. A cobot can provide the necessary force, repetition, and accuracy required for finishing jobs. These finishing jobs can include polishing, grinding, and deburring. The robot can be taught manually or via computer programming methods. Cobots that have force control can help make the robot more robust. This allows the robot to deal with different dimensioned parts. This is achieved through force sensing, either via the end-effector or internally.

Quality Inspection

Alicona uses its 3D metrology inspection cameras in conjunction with UR cobot arms for fast and easy visual inspection. (Image courtesy of Alicona)

The last task that can be accomplished via a robot is quality inspection of parts. The process usually involves full inspection of finished parts, high resolution images for precision machined parts, and part verification against CAD models. Mounting multiple high-resolution cameras onto cobots can automate the process for faster results. The inspection can also be captured digitally and digitize the comparison to computer generated model process. Using cobots for inspection can result in higher-quality inspection, resulting in more accurate production batches. End-effectors with high-resolution cameras may be required for the inspection, as well as vision systems and software.

>> This article by Carlos Gonzalez appeared in Machine Design, Jan 18, 2018

May 9-10, 2018 – Hexagon Technology Conference and Training at ITC

The Industrial Technology Centre is pleased to host a  two-day technology conference and training presented by Hexagon Manufacturing Intelligence.

Register for one day or both days. Lunch is provided.

This event will include information sessions, demonstrations, and will allow for hands-on interaction with the latest Hexagon scanning and long range measurement technologies and software.  Learn what’s new in SpatialAnalyzer from New River Kinematics, a division of Hexagon, and discover how portable measurement software can help improve productivity.

Details and Registration

Digital Twins Bring Value to Big RFID and IoT Data

PACCAR is using a digital twin model to manage the maintenance and repair of some engines, by creating a virtual version of an engine based on sensor data from the real-world versions.

Radio frequency identification (RFID)- and Internet of Things (IoT)-based systems (wireless or wired) have been collecting location and sensor data for years. However, an ongoing challenge has been how to manage the growing volume of accumulated data. In some cases, the solutions to manage that data have lagged far behind the hardware capabilities to collect it.

One way in which companies are now making use of the data from RFID, real-time location system (RTLS) and IoT solutions is to create replicas of real assets—known as digital twins—so that they can be measured against them, or put to the test, virtually. The twin concept has resulted from the wealth of data generated by the wireless transmission of sensor and location data regarding things and people.

By leveraging a digital representation of a physical asset, users can gain intelligence that can help them to test behavioral responses to conditions, or to predict failures. It’s the next step, some analysts say, to understanding and managing the vast volumes of data that come from sensors via RFID transmissions or other forms of wireless communication.

Typically, digital twin technology is most recently being employed for better predictive maintenance and repair, though it could cross multiple industries and market sectors, says David McCarthy, the senior director at IoT software company Bsquare, which offers a solution to customers in the industrial sector known as DataV. Bsquare has focused for several decades on bringing intelligence to physical assets, first as machine-to-machine data. Throughout the past year, the firm’s customers have used its DataV software stack to predict failures and capture data-driven diagnostics.

A digital twin can be used to set up baseline performance expectations and real-time comparisons against other devices, McCarthy explains. By creating this virtual device, based on sensor data from the real things, users can better understand how their equipment should be performing—and how it actually is performing. This enables the users to accurately predict when maintenance may be necessary, when a failure is imminent and what conditions are most favorable for a device’s operation.

PACCAR is using Bsquare’s solution to create digital versions of its equipment in order to create repair scenarios. The company can create a master twin against which real engines or parts can be compared. The data is being collected from sensors applied to engines. As information is received in the DataV system, it is correlated and compared against the conditions under which the engine may operate. A typical engine, under specific conditions, can then be created in the software.

PACCAR can then manipulate the information to learn how functionality could vary based on conditions, use or other factors. It could, for instance, vary the conditions for the twin virtually, such as increasing heat or pressure, and thereby better predict what might occur in the real world.

Traditionally, there has been less intelligence behind the capture of sensor data. The health of a vehicle’s engine was monitored via sensors that triggered alerts when conditions required servicing for the engine or other part. However, alerts could mean a repair or maintenance was crucial either in the immediate future, or many miles and days in the future. That could lead to unexpected engine failures, even if an alert was provided, simply because the alerts aren’t very specific. Because PACCAR also provides servicing of its products, it sought a system that could make those visits and repair work more efficient and accurate, based on good diagnostic information.

PACCAR launched the system with its MX-13 engines, for use by its servicing division. With the system in place, the company can compare real-time information about an engine’s use and performance, compare it against the specific model and predict any necessary services. This reduces unnecessary servicing, and ensures that predictive maintenance is performed on an effective schedule, in order to reduce the incidence of failures.

For companies like Bsquare, digital twins can serve as the natural maturation of the Internet of Things. Since the IoT was developed, McCarthy says, “there’s been a hierarchy of needs” that began with access to data. Once companies were able to access such data, the question has been how to use it.

Bsquare has typically been introducing the technology to companies by starting with early piloting. “When we bring our products, it’s a pilot at a limited scale,” McCarthy states. Once the businesses become comfortable with the technology, he adds, “then we just turn up the volume,” by making it available across a company’s entire enterprise as they scale up.

Following on the successful IoT system deployment across its MX-13 engines, PACCAR is looking for other areas in its business to leverage the technology.

>> This article by Claire Swedberg appeared in IoT Journal, April 2, 2018

NASA Marshall Advances 3-D Printed Rocket Engine Nozzle Technology

Through hot-fire testing at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, engineers put this nozzle through its paces, accumulating more than 1,040 seconds at high combustion chamber pressures and temperatures. Now, this technology is being licensed and considered in commercial applications across the industry. (Credits: NASA/MSFC/David Olive)

Rocket engine nozzles operate in extreme temperatures and pressures from the combustion process and are complex and expensive to manufacture. That is why a team of engineers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, developed and proved out a new additive manufacturing technique for nozzle fabrication that can greatly reduce costs and development time.

A new process called Laser Wire Direct Closeout (LWDC) was developed and advanced at NASA to build a less-expensive nozzle in significantly less time. LWDC is a different process than most 3-D printing technologies, which are powder-based and fabricated in layers. It uses a freeform-directed energy wire deposition process to fabricate material in place. This new NASA-patented technology has the potential to reduce build time from several months to several weeks.

“NASA is committed to revitalizing and transforming its already highly advanced manufacturing technologies for rocket engines,” said Preston Jones, director of the Engineering Directorate at Marshall. “What makes this development project even more unique is there were three separate, state-of-the-art, advanced manufacturing technologies used together to build a better nozzle and prove it out through hot-fire testing — an example of why Marshall continues to be a worldwide leader in manufacturing of propulsion technologies.”

Engineers from NASA Marshall Space Flight Center’s Propulsion Department examine nozzles fabricated using a freeform-directed energy wire deposition process. From left are Paul Gradl, Will Brandsmeier, Ian Johnston and Sandy Greene, with the nozzles, which were built using a NASA-patented technology that has the potential to reduce build time from several months to several weeks. (Credits: NASA/MSFC/Emmett Given)

Nozzles may look simple from the outside, but they are very complex. The new LWDC method employs a wire-based additive manufacturing process to precisely close out the nozzle coolant channels, which contain the high pressure coolant fluid that protects the walls from the high temperatures a nozzle must withstand.

Nozzles are actively cooled, or regeneratively cooled, meaning the propellant later used in the combustion cycle is routed through the nozzle to properly cool the walls so they do not overheat. To regeneratively cool the nozzles, a series of channels are fabricated within the nozzle, but then must be closed out, or sealed, to contain the high-pressure coolant. The new patented process using the LWDC technology closes out the coolant channels and forms a support jacket in place, reacting structural loads during engine operation.

“Our motivation behind this technology was to develop a robust process that eliminates several steps in the traditional manufacturing process,” said Paul Gradl, a senior propulsion engineer in Marshall’s Engine Components Development & Technology Branch. Gradl has focused his whole career on rocket nozzles and combustion chambers, like this one developed and patented at Marshall. “The manufacturing process is further complicated by the fact that the hot wall of the nozzle is only the thickness of a few sheets of paper and must withstand high temperatures and strains during operation.”

“Our motivation behind this technology was to develop a robust process that eliminates several steps in the traditional manufacturing process,” said Paul Gradl, a senior propulsion engineer in Marshall’s Engine Components Development & Technology Branch. Gradl has focused his whole career on rocket nozzles and combustion chambers, like this one developed and patented at Marshall. “The manufacturing process is further complicated by the fact that the hot wall of the nozzle is only the thickness of a few sheets of paper and must withstand high temperatures and strains during operation.”

 A subscale channel wall nozzle is hot-fire tested in November 2017 at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. The nozzle was fabricated using three separate, state-of-the-art, advanced manufacturing technologies including a new process called Laser Wire Direct Closeout that was co-developed and advanced at Marshall.
(Credits: NASA/MSFC)

After Marshall co-developed and patented the LWDC process, Keystone Synergistic of Port St. Lucie, Florida, used the technology to fabricate and test a nozzle. Through hot-fire testing at Marshall, engineers put this nozzle through its paces, accumulating more than 1,040 seconds at high combustion chamber pressures and temperatures. Now, this technology is being licensed and considered in commercial applications across the industry.

The second technology tested as part of this campaign was an abrasive water jet milling process to form the coolant channels advanced by Ormond, LLC of Auburn, Washington, while a further technology developed was an arc-based deposition technology to additively manufacture the near net shape liner that would contain the water jet milled channels. All three technologies were developed through NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research program, working to bring together the agency with its industry partners to advance manufacturing. With projects such as these, Marshall is stimulating small business to maximize the return on America’s investment in space technology and exploration.

“One of the things I get excited about is advancing and proving out new technologies for our application with industry partners that a private space company can then use as part of their supply chain,” said Gradl. “That was the objective behind some of this — we formulated the concept, worked with external vendors, and now we’re partnering to infuse this new technology throughout industry to improve advanced manufacturing.”

>> Jennifer Stanfield, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center News Releases, March 19, 2018

Investing In Augmented Reality

MROs and OEMs are teaming up with AR technology providers to explore applications in the classroom and on the shop floor

Augmented reality (AR) has been steadily gaining traction within the MRO industry for everything from technician training and remote collaboration to previewing aircraft configurations and liveries. If financial investments are any indication, interest in the technology only continues to grow.

RealWear recently raised $17 million in funding for its HMT-1 AR wearable device, and AR software provider Upskill just picked up $17.2 million in capital support from investors including Accenture, GE Ventures and Boeing HorizonX. GE Aviation, which ran a six-month pilot program last year using Google Glass and Upskill’s Skylight software, found that 60% of mechanics involved in the pilot preferred accessing work procedures via AR compared to the traditional method.

Upskill’s Skylight platform is deployed across multiple Boeing locations for applications within manufacturing, maintenance, repair and distribution. The company recently completed a successful pilot program for using the software in conjunction with Glass Enterprise to simplify the process for wire installation, which is typically a complex job. Upskill says the program resulted in a 25% reduction in wiring production time and lowered error rates to effectively zero. According to a spokesperson, the OEM plans to scale up the pilot this year. Boeing has developed an AR system that enables kitting of 3D drawings based on wire installation plans, which are then presented to the end user and spatially aligned to an aircraft on a wearable device. Currently, Boeing has four devices available for use that are being operationally tested as a production pilot. In addition to wearable devices, the company wants to develop products for hand-held delivery of this AR view on smartphones and tablets this year.

Another recent Boeing HorizonX investment generating buzz is Pittsburgh-based C360 Technologies, which specializes in 360-deg. video and AR/VR. Boeing’s spokesperson says the company sees various potential applications for C360’s AR video capabilities, including immersive inflight entertainment, aerial survey and for the “factory of the future.” Although Boeing did not share any specific use cases it is exploring, it hopes to further enhance productivity and quality in manufacturing by tapping into both C360 and Upskill’s AR capabilities. Potentially of interest in developing ideas will be Boeing’s recent investment in California-based Singularity University, which seeks to further the application of technologies such as AR through educational programs for both individuals and organizations.

Like Boeing, Honeywell has been collaborating with AR providers for industrial and aerospace use cases. It is part of RealWear’s Pioneer Program and has been collaborating with Microsoft to use its HoloLens mixed reality headset to train plant personnel through its Connected Plant Skills Insight system. Skills Insight combines AR and virtual reality (VR) training with data analytics to improve skills retention and reduce training time. A representative for Honeywell says the company is working to bring systems like this to both pilot training and MRO, such as using an AR headset to read stamped, etched or dirty part numbers directly off engine parts.

Also collaborating with Microsoft to use HoloLens for MRO are Airbus and AFI-KLM E&M. Airbus, which is part of Microsoft’s Mixed-Reality Partner Program, has been using AR technology on the digital shop floor since 2011. Employing a hand-held AR device that displays a 3D model on top of an aircraft and tracks user movements and the environment via sensors, Airbus engineers and operators are able to see data and information to assist construction and inspection processes. According to Airbus, this approach reduced the inspection time of 60,000 brackets used on an A380 fuselage to just three days from three weeks.

Airbus says its partnership with Microsoft has allowed the company to better understand AR’s capabilities and leverage the technology’s potential. Similar to Boeing’s wire installation process using Glass Enterprise, Airbus electrical teams use HoloLens AR glasses to view different parts of a virtual harness cable superimposed on top of an aircraft in front of them. The company says this hands-free AR guidance enables a 25% faster installation that is easier and more comfortable for operators.

An Airbus technician uses HoloLens mixed- reality glasses on the shop floor.

L3 Link, a long-time provider of training and simulation products for military and government customers, has developed the Immersive Maintenance Guide (IMG), which pairs with the HoloLens or a variety of other hands-free AR headsets for both maintenance support and training. L3 Link says the IMG unifies aviation training and field operations support by bringing technical manuals to life using interactive 3D graphics and technical data. The IMG can work as a virtual assistant in the field by providing on-demand refresher training and troubleshooting for mechanics, which L3 Link says increases first-time fix rates and reduces maintenance costs. The company also says that for maintenance trainees, the IMG’s AR/VR classrooms better engage students while accelerating learning and increasing knowledge retention.

AFI KLM E&M also has been leveraging AR technology for training. The company’s MRO Lab in Singapore has paired the HoloLens with a training application prototype that allows mechanics to interact with expensive and complex parts—such as aircraft engines—in a virtual classroom environment. In addition to the benefits of avoiding the time and expense required to work on physical parts, AFI-KLM E&M says this mixed-reality training prototype has proven it can enable faster and more accurate learning. A spokesperson says all mechanics training at AFI-KLM E&M will now use mixed and virtual reality, such as a system the MRO Lab has developed for technical training on the Boeing 787 that takes no more than five days, since technicians do not need to access the physical aircraft. The company is exploring other use cases for the technology, such as remote collaboration or accessing aircraft documentation for step-by-step guidance while repairing components.

One new AR technology focused on remote collaboration is Fountx’s assisted reality. The wearable technology was tested for a year under Fountx’s parent company, TAE Aerospace, before its release in 2017. While wearing the Fountx headset, trainees or technicians working in remote locations are able to collaborate with an expert in a different location who can view what they are seeing and draw on the shared screen to indicate specific points of interest.

After conducting initial trials of the technology late last year, ST Aerospace—which purchased two units from Fountx—has moved to more operational trials to enhance its digital products. Last November, ST Aerospace Chief Operating Officer Jeffrey Lam told Inside MRO that the company was considering AR for both training and remote support applications. At this year’s Singapore Airshow, ST Aerospace demonstrated how AR glasses could be used to support engineers and mechanics when removing the axle nuts of an aircraft wheel.

According to Andy Jones, head of sales at Fountx, the company has seen abundant interest in the technology and has demo units in place at a number of aerospace companies, including Airbus, Pacific Air Express and the Australian Transport Safety Bureau.

>> This article by Lindsay Bjerregaard appeared on MRO-Network.com, April 10, 2018

Mass Customization’s Data Challenge

Having a pair of custom-designed ski boots and inserts is a dream come true for an avid skier. Ill-fitting gear detracts from comfort and performance, yet the industry has struggled to come up with a mass customization method that is affordable and practical for the ski boot manufacturer as well as for retailers and consumers.

Thanks to additive manufacturing and advanced 3D scanning, Tailored Fits, a Swiss manufacturer, is making fast tracks toward a solution. The company partnered with Materialise to create a digital customization platform for wearables that can turn around orders for custom inserts along with fully customized ski boots in just 10 days. Although advances in 3D printing and 3D scanning have made the new gear possible, it was the pair’s collaboration around digital workflow and design automation software and processes that allowed Tailored Fits to cost effectively offer a mass customized product, says Reto Rindlisbacher, CEO of the firm.

Tailored Fits has tapped Materialise technology and expertise to create a customization platform and digital supply chain for 3D printed ski boots and inserts. (Image courtesy of Materialise.)

“A total digital workflow is important because when you’re working with 3D data, you create a significant amount of work that you want to avoid,” Rindlisbacher explains. “We want to be able to get product to market fast and we don’t want to spend a lot of money setting up a large crew to prepare data for 3D printing. It’s important from the beginning to have a smooth process.”

Degrees of Design Freedom

Mass customization, a holy grail for manufacturers across many industries, has had a difficult run given a range of obstacles, from inadequate materials and still immature 3D printing practices to challenges related to integrating all the critical data sources to drive production of a customized product. Advances in 3D printing materials and technology have launched the practice from a small segment of companies in specific industries like medical instruments and dental fixtures to a growing number of pilot deployments in mainstream retail and consumer sectors, including customized footwear, eyeglasses and even a new generation of personalized vehicles.

“There’s increased interest in mass customization because the desire and pull from designers at product companies has always been there, but now 3D manufacturing practices have matured to where there’s the right push from advances like speed and surface finish resolution,” says Gurjeev Chadha, technical product marketing expert at Carbon. Carbon’s 3D printers are based on an additive manufacturing process called CLIP (Continuous Liquid Interface Production), which harnesses light and oxygen to produce products from resin while addressing some of the resolution and surface finishing shortcomings of conventional 3D printing technologies.

Key to making mass customization a reality for manufacturers is creating the digital platforms and accompanying processes that establish a digital thread connecting relevant data about an individual consumer with different product variations and ultimately serving it up in a format that can drive the 3D printing process. Currently, most of these early digital platforms are built around custom software and company-specific data transformation, integration and automated workflow processes designed collaboratively by the manufacturer and its 3D printing partners as opposed to implementation of off-the-shelf software and solutions.

Also essential to the mix are new data acquisition tools and data sources that can drive the mass customization, regardless of product type. “To get there, it’s all about data sources,” explains David Tucker, market development manager, 3D printing at HP, which is touting its Jet Fusion 3D 4200 printers as a path to industrial 3D manufacturing and mass customization. “We need to figure out the sources of data we can exploit—whether they exist or whether we need to invest in them. We also need to incorporate additional data acquisition tools, otherwise you are simply presenting customized products with limited options.”

HP Jet Fusion 3D 4200 printers create a path to industrial 3D manufacturing and mass customization. (Image courtesy of HP.)

As part of its vision, Carbon is touting a full portfolio of specialized software that facilitates on-demand 3D manufacturing, including algorithmic design tools to help designers easily create internal lattice structures, and its SpeedCell platform that supports fleet management of multiple printers so manufacturers can produce customized products at scale.

In one of its most prominent customer examples, Carbon is working with footwear giant adidas, initially on Futurecraft 4D, a mass production process that can churn out previously impossible midsole designs with 3D printed materials and will eventually pave the way for custom, high-performance shoes that meet the unique needs of customers. Key to the adidas effort is lattice simulation and FEA automated support tools, which allow for design freedom to produce shoes with variable properties throughout the midsole, cutting back on trial and error. The software was a collaborative design effort between Carbon and adidas, and is now offered as a commercial product for customers working with Carbon technical partners.

adidas is leveraging Carbon’s Digital Light Synthesis 3D printing technology to mass produce custom, high-performance sneakers. (Image courtesy of Carbon.)

“With mass customization, you want efficiencies—you need the first sole out of the printer to be accurate otherwise, there are serious doubts that the business model can work,” Chadha explains. “These tools unlock the ability to design and manufacture midsoles right the first time, but also to create lattice structures or materials where the simulation behavior matches the mechanical behavior.”

Collaborative Design

As the Carbon/adidas partnership illustrates, much of the software driving mass customization and data integration workflows is currently highly customized itself, born from collaborative efforts between the individual manufacturers and their key 3D printing partners. There is a lot of activity in the footwear sector. In addition to the Carbon/adidas collaboration, Under Armour last November announced a strategic partnership with EOS to leverage its advanced laser sintering technology for printing powder-based parts and evolving polymer powder development, and Nike’s NIKEiD, available on its website and in select stores, lets customers tailor the more aesthetic parts of design like color, text, collar and lacing. Even the automotive industry is getting in on the act: European car company Opel offers an almost unheard of level of customization (4 billion combinations) on its ADAM and ADAM ROCKS models, thanks to a manufacturing concept that adapts material and production flow based on customer requirements.

The medical industry has been way out in front on mass customization practices, particularly for surgical cutting guides, which are well established for producing far better outcomes for patients, reducing costs and making much better use of surgeons’ time, according to Laura Gilmour, global medical business development manager of EOS North America. EOS works with a variety of customers in this space on customized software and workflows that enable them to quickly churn out patient-specific instruments—in the case of Smith & Nephew, 650 unique cutting guides per week. An MRI or CT scan is used to create a virtual model of a patient’s anatomy that engineers and surgeons use to preplan the surgery along with the sizing and placement of implants and a subsequent design for a disposable surgical instrument matched specifically to the patient’s anatomy.

EOS technology lets Exactech create medical instruments in small production runs with reduced lead times and costs. (Image courtesy of Exactech.)

Although the medical industry has a lot of the mass customization processes down, there are remaining challenges, many related to data. Specifically, ensuring that the patient data tracked with digital design data all the way through the process is kept in compliance with patient privacy regulations like HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act). The data also is used to ensure product quality, certification and qualification.

“Generally speaking, most product customizations to date are variations on base designs, allowing for a range of flexibility while still maintaining the integrity of the product,” notes Dr. Greg Hayes, director of applications and consulting for EOS North America. “Software design programs together with trained users can identify design for manufacturing improvements and help ensure quality.”

HOYA Vision Care set out to shake up the eyewear industry with a mass customization strategy co-developed with its partner, Materialise. It starts with the Yuniku 3D scanning system and kiosk designed for use in optician shops to take high-resolution scans (they register within 1/10 mm accuracy) of a customer’s facial anatomy. Unlike conventional eyewear design, which restricts lens performance because opticians must match lens placement to the chosen frame, the Yuniku platform leverages tools like 3D scanning, parametric design automation and 3D printing, to design the frame around the ideal position of the optical lens on an individual’s face.

HOYA has launched Yuniku, a 3D scanning system that aids in the production of custom eyewear. (Image courtesy of HOYA Vision Care.)

HOYA-designed software parses facial and visual data to determine the ideal placement of the lenses in relation to the eyes, while Materialise’s software is used to modify the frame appropriately based on those parameters and the individual’s unique characteristics. Consumers can also select color and finish, and once the design is complete, it is sent off to the HOYA factory for 3D printing and some additional manual finishing work, according to Felix Espana, HOYA’s global new media manager. Currently, HOYA has about 200 Yuniku operational platforms, mostly in Europe.

Hearing aid manufacturer Sonova USA transformed its technology and workflow processes more than 15 years ago to support the mass customization model. “By definition, what we do is mass customization—every ear is different, every hearing loss is different, the complexity is widespread and we have to customize for individual patients,” explains Mujo Bogaljevic, the company’s vice president of operations.

With its partners, including 3D printer maker EnvisionTEC, Sonova custom-designed software and brought in hardware specifically mapped to support its data-driven processes. There are 3D scanners, which capture 30,000 data points in 30 seconds and scan silicone impressions of patient ears to create digital files. There is a custom-built design program, the Rapid Shell Manufacturing Design software, which marries the 3D image with patient and order data stored in SAP or other business systems, including key information such as preferences for size, color and options along with more clinical information about the patient’s hearing loss. The software, which was designed for use by operators who are non-CAD users, also directs placement of all the electronics and other components required for the hearing aid.

“The software performs the collision detection and knows what can be produced and what can’t,” Bogaljevic explains. “It’s a combination of automated CAD design software with the ability to modify as necessary by the operator using their experience.”

Also developed in-house by Sonova, is its Digital Work Order Management (DWOM) application, which is the connective tissue that integrates the relevant data from the different databases and helps automate the workflow, including pushing orders to the EnvisionTEC 3D printers, without requiring operator intervention.

This piece of the puzzle is critical if manufacturers are serious about making the leap from 3D printing for rapid prototyping to a full-scale mass customization process. Says Bogaljevic: “This is a fully integrated, mass customization environment so we had to tie everything together; if we were passing data off manually, it would be very inefficient.”

>> Originally posted by Beth Stackpole in Digital Engineering, March 1, 2018

Underinvested in Automation? Leapfrog to Smart Manufacturing!

Factora gives insight into how you can seamlessly upgrade your plant for Industry 4.0 without breaking the bank.

You’re a manufacturer that has underinvested in automation or information technologies?

You’re not alone.

You get sticker shock from the traditional approach of moving information from sensors to control systems (PLC, Scada or DCS) and then to a plant/corporate information layer?

You’re not alone.

You feel disadvantaged compared to digital-leader competitors, and can’t figure out how to catch up?

You’re not alone.

Two routes to Smart Manufacturing and Industry 4.0

Great news for all of you with under-instrumented or legacy control systems! IIoT and allied technologies have evolved to a point that they now offer two innovative, lower-cost routes to Smart Manufacturing – using existing layers and new wireless technology.

The cost savings are significant; achieving a digital visibility layer can be a mere fraction of the investment of just a few years ago. True, the end results won’t be identical (the difference is in the control systems), but it is certainly possible, at a remarkably low cost, to achieve a level of digital-age visibility that super-charges an old-style manufacturer into Industry 4.0 decision-making and performance.

Route 1: Traditional hierarchy

In Figure 1, IIoT provides a better, faster path to Smart Manufacturing. In this approach, current and new (wireless) instrumentation are brought into the control layer, then to the MES, and from there to IIoT.


Route 2: Leapfrog hierarchy!

In the Leapfrog approach [Figure 2], IIoT enables a cost-saving shortcut (thanks to today’s cheaper sensors, cheaper wireless networks and secured connectivity to IIoT platforms), by allowing most new non-closed-loop measurements to bypass the control systems. Instead, they’re fed directly into the plant historian. IIoT picks up data from there.


This route offers significant benefits:

  • Rip-and-replace is neither necessary nor justified
  • Your IIoT platform gets information from existing as well as new investments.

The result? IIoT-enabled visibility and insights into your operation, in real time.
Bonus: Later on, these can be used to implement advanced applications (analytics, augmented reality, and so on) – using the same IIoT platform.

This route to Smart Manufacturing boasts a long list of advantages:

  • Faster to implement
  • Variety of data sources (from different functions) integrated into same platform
  • No need for large upfront investments; start small and scale as needed
  • Use quick wins; build on successes
  • Sensors can be added around critical processes to give deeper insights
  • Flexibility – IIoT platforms can be implemented on-premise or at corporate data centers. Some IIoT platforms offer hybrid solutions that allow mission-critical info to stay on-premise and other info in the cloud.

Think big, start small…

For the Leapfrog route, we see major advantages to an approach we call:

Think big, start small, show success, scale fast

The first focus is on visibility, to give insights to enterprise-level decision-makers. Now, they can identify and analyze KPIs for each of the major functions. At Factora, our strength in UX (User eXperience) helps us to deliver these insights to a wide range of leadership positions.

Relatively small investments generate big returns with “Think big, start small.” And the new visibility alone – the questions it raises and the what-if debate it generates – is a strong start to the transformation journey.

Once the new visibility and insights are used to drive business decisions (“show success”), a scale-up effort can build deeper granularity, additional breadth, and more automation. Additional capabilities in analytics, machine learning and AR can be justified and built.

How do you time your technology change?

Since the world began moving to digital, manufacturing leadership has repeatedly had difficult technology decisions to make. Wait for lower prices? Wait for the next, improved version? Or jump now? The answer is rarely obvious, and becomes ever more difficult as the pace of change increases.

IIoT to the rescue! This leapfrog approach is of great benefit to any manufacturer still dealing with under-instrumentation or legacy control systems. With a minimal investment, such a manufacturer can leap to the new digital-age visibility that leads to better decision-making, improved performance, and world class manufacturing.

>> This article by Charles A. Roth and Raj Jakhete appeared in New Equipment Digest, Mar 22, 2018

RFID and Warehouses

RFID and Warehouses

RFID technology has taken off big time in the retail space in the last few years. Some of the biggest brands in the world, such as Target, Macy’s, and Kohl’s rely on RFID tags in their inventory to improve their supply chain. Retailers want to make sure their selling floors are stocked with the right inventory, and ensure what is sold online, is available in-store and vice-versa.

The buzzword for this is omnichannel retail. In reality, it’s simply keeping up with the times by meeting consumer demands. Customers expect to be able to shop and buy anywhere. To do so, retailers need a well-oiled, streamlined supply chain. A tall task that RFID technology is up for.

RFID tags are often compared to barcodes. When it comes to retail, RFID tags can be scanned all at once, whereas barcodes need to be scanned one at a time. That’s why inventory counts can be done so much quicker with RFID. In fact, according to GS1, retailers see a 96% reduction in cycle count time, a 50% decrease in out-of-stock inventory, and an average rise in inventory accuracy to 95%.  In short, RFID simplifies the process gathering inventory data.

In order to ensure the merchandise these retailers sell are properly using RFID, retailers mandate product manufacturers and distributors with certain standards of tag quality and usage. This is done to ensure the highest probably of inventory accuracy. Once the mandate comes down, it’s on the manufacturer/distributor to get the right tags, equipment, and protocols in place. This can be a critical project for manufacturers to undertake. Failing to follow these mandates can result in harsh penalties and costly chargebacks from retail partners.

Some manufacturers simply put the RFID tags onto their merchandise without considering how they can use the RFID tags for their own supply chain initiatives. Just like their retail partners, manufacturers and distributors can use RFID to improve inventory accuracy within their own warehouse. They can even use their RFID tags to ensure chargebacks are kept to a minimum.

RFID can drastically improve the operations of warehouses and manufacturers. And, if you’ve already been mandated by your retail vendors, you’ve already made the investment. You can easily get a return on your investment by simply utilizing the RFID tags internally.

But, what do we specifically mean by “use RFID”? Here are 3 ways your RFID tags can be used in warehouses and distribution centers.

  1. Seek and Find Inventory – warehouses are big, and time is money. How long would it take to find a specific item or product? I have a better question. How long should it take to find a specific item or product? Fulfillment time is critical for many retail operations. Omnichannel initiatives rely heavily on a fast supply chain. The ability to fulfill orders faster can give distributors a huge leg up. Geiger counters, for example, can be used within warehouses or fulfillment centers in order to find items faster.
  2. Automatic Shipment Validation – once items are picked, RFID tags can be validated on their way out of the warehouse. A simple RFID tag validator, like the CYBRA RFID Cage, can automatically validate every single outbound shipment. This is done by simply scanning items coming down a conveyor belt. If an incorrect item has been picked/packed, the packaged is flagged. RFID’s ability to automatically validate shipments is how the technology can drastically decrease chargebacks. A solution like the RFID Cage can even record every outbound shipment. So, an inaccurate chargeback bill can be contested.
  3. Inventory Cycle Counting – Obviously many warehouses supply chains rely on warehouse WMS and ERP systems. But, if a company or warehouse does not have the discipline to actively manage and update inventory information, the data on the WMS/ERP system is useless. Most warehouses have an inventory accuracy rate of about 50% – 60%. As previously mentioned, RFID tagged inventory can be counted and checked quickly and efficiently. Items can be bulk scanned all at once, which takes out the human error of miscounting, or not seeing items.
    These three areas alone are just the beginning when it comes to internal benefits with RFID. Once your warehouse is filled with tagged items you can cycle count in a fraction of the time compared to traditional methods.

Once the infrastructure is in place, RFID helps brand owners track preproduction samples, job tickets, and raw material bundles. Even showroom sales processes can be quickly and easily enhanced using RFID.

By putting RFID to work for your brand, you will reduce the costs of receiving, packing, and shipping goods, and you’ll minimize chargebacks with improved order and shipment validation.

>> Posted in RFID World, March 21, 2018

Pick and Place Robots: What Are They Used For and How Do They Benefit Manufacturers?

Pick-and-place robots have become commonplace in today’s manufacturing environment. Typically relegated to simple, repetitive and monotonous tasks that robots naturally excel at, pick-and-place robots bring a number of benefits for manufacturers.

Pick-and-place robots are usually mounted on a stable stand, strategically positioned to reach their entire work envelope. Advanced vision systems enable them to grasp and move objects on a conveyor belt, which can be used in a variety of different ways.

Pick-and-place robot applications

Pick-and-place robots are used in many ways, depending on the product being handled and the manufacturer’s need for automation. There are four main ways that pick-and-place robots are used:

  1. Assembly: Pick-and-place robots, during assembly processes, grab an incoming part from a conveyor belt and then place this part onto another work piece, which is then typically carried away by another conveyor belt.
  2. Packaging: Similar to assembly processes, a pick and place robot grabs a part on an incoming conveyor belt and, rather than assemble the part, the robot places it in a packaging container at a high speed.
  3. Bin picking: Pick-and-place robots equipped with advanced vision systems can grab a part out of a bin, sometimes even when parts are randomly mixed together in a bin, and place this part on a conveyor for production.
  4. Inspection: Vision systems can monitor products moving on an incoming conveyor belt and detect defective products, and then a pick and place robot can remove the defective product before it reaches the final phases of production.

While pick-and-place robots are used in a number of different ways, the four types of applications listed above are some of the most common in today’s manufacturing facilities.

Benefits of pick-and-place robots

The two main benefits of pick-and-place robots are speed and consistency. For pick and place robots, throughput can often reach up to 200 products per minute, while vision systems can identify 100 products per second on a moving conveyor. Additionally, placement errors can be as small as 0 mm in a properly integrated system.

The consistency at which a pick-and-place robot is able to complete assembly, quality control, packaging and other material handling processes improves the overall quality of production and reduces downtime due to errors. Speed contributes significantly to productivity, as pick and place robots move products through the manufacturing process much quicker than manual options.

Overall, pick-and-place robots can provide great return on investment (ROI) for manufacturers because of the productivity benefits they can provide. Pick-and-place robots help production operations around the world increase their output in a profitable way.

Pick-and-place robots have become a commonplace robotic application in today’s facilities. These robots deliver proven advantages for manufacturers, and relieve workers of monotonous, repetitive work.

>> Posted by Robotics Online Marketing Team, Robotics Online, 3/13/18

Michigan Tech engineers develop open-source GMAW metal 3D printer for only $1,200

Joshua Pearce, a prolific engineer at Michigan Tech, has been working on developing an affordable metal 3D printing technology. The project involves hacking a CNC router kit and an metal inert gas (MIG) welder to create a low-cost GMAW metal 3D printer.

In a recent paper published by Pearce and his colleagues, the engineer details possible applications for the novel metal 3D printing process. They include fixing a damaged part by 3D printing a metal feature onto it, creating a part with a substrate, 3D printing high-resolution objects, producing near-net components, and manufacturing an “integrated product” with a combination of polymer and steel 3D printing.

The metal 3D printer itself is based on an open-source design reportedly inspired by the Rostock delta RepRap printer, only it integrates a gas metal arc welding (GMAW)-based print head, making metal 3D printing possible. The open-source metal 3D printer can reportedly be made for as little as $1,200.

The innovative printer is built to use weld filler wire as a material, which is more easily accessible than industrial-quality metal powders. And though the printer is not exactly up to the same standard as laser-based metal AM systems, Pearce and his colleagues say that it demonstrates “good adhesion between layers” and is suitable for a number of applications.

Importantly, its low cost can make it accessible to small businesses, makers, and others.

“Most of the metal 3D printers available on the market are for high-end applications, which require expensive equipment and use relatively dangerous fine metal powders,” reads the Michigan Tech study. “Due to the cost and the complicity of the technology, it is inaccessible for small and medium enterprises (SMEs), fablabs, and individual makers who are interested in the ability to prototype and make final products in metal using additive manufacturing technology.”

With SME-related applications in mind, Pearce and his team set to work testing their GMAW metal 3D printer for five different uses (listed above). For the first application of 3D printing a metal feature to fix an existing part, a bracket was 3D printed onto a substrate.

For the second application, the machine was used to 3D print a metal part and a substrate. In its example, the research group 3D printed a cylinder onto a substrate to create a hoe: “The substrate is cut into a shape of a hoe and sharpened on the edge opposite the printed cylinder. A wood or a polymer 3D printed stick can be used as a handle for the hoe. Being able to manufacture such a product in an isolated rural community can be considered appropriate technology and can foster sustainable development.”

To showcase the 3D printer’s ability to create a high-resolution model, the researchers additively manufactured a metal chisel model and a chemistry lab support ring model. These demonstrated a higher resolution than the previous version of the GMAW 3D printer could offer and required minimal machining before use.

The fourth application, producing a near-net-shape part, consisted of producing a customizable horseshoe. This part required machining.

Finally, the research team demonstrated the ability to manufacture an integrated product by combining polymer and metal 3D printing. In this example, an axe head was 3D printed from steel using the open-source printer and its handle was printed from nylon.

As the researchers explain, “A combination process like this can be used to remotely manufacture similar open source instruments such as a hammer or other hand tools that would be useful in the developed and developing world.”

Ultimately, Pearce and his team have shown that their low-cost and open-source metal 3D printing technology is adequate for a range of applications. “Metal products and parts can be designed and created using this technology and the low-cost and open-source advantages make it available to everyone,” they say. “This also gives the user the flexibility to customize the hardware and software for other uses.”

Notably, the researchers believe that their hackable metal 3D printer could be deployed to developing regions of the world and to generally encourage sustainable manufacturing and development.

You can read the full paper, “Applications of Open Source GMAW-Based Metal 3-D Printing,” here.

>> Posted by Tess on www.3ders.org, Mar 16, 2018