High-speed vision sorting technology records rapid improvement with industrial Ethernet

VMek enhances networking hardware for color sorting with pluggable EtherCAT industrial Ethernet input/output (I/O) modules that reduce costs, equipment footprint and time to market.

By James Figy October 11, 2019

Kent Lovvorn, general manager of VMek Sorting Technology, has a singular vision that drives him: design and perfect his own high-speed vision systems. “I wanted to specialize in some segment of high-speed machine vision,” he said. High-speed machine vision requires high-speed industrial communications to help realize a 50% reduction in equipment assembly time.

Founded in 2014, VMek offers software and hardware products for vision sorting. The company’s sorting machines leverage technologies to meet the needs of customers in the agriculture industry, which include the biggest seed producers in the U.S.

The Metrix uses two full-color GigE cameras and offers a throughput of 600 seeds per second, while the Element has four full-color GigE cameras with a throughput of 12,000 seeds per second. The ability to provide valuable data on every seed in real-time differentiates VMek systems from other color sorters that only separate parts.

“VMek software performs composite analysis using the front and back images of each item. The software isolates each part and mates them together to complete a 360-degree full-part analysis,” Lovvorn said.

This data allows manufacturers and producers to analyze why individual parts were rejected and compare lab results with plant floor realities. They also can use insights to plan for the future, Lovvorn said. “The seed companies can plan accordingly for the next grow cycle to either enhance or eliminate specific traits.”

Continuous improvement for I/O solutions

VMek continues to refine its systems to provide more granular data and transmit them using OPC UA without increasing machine footprint. From the beginning, Lovvorn believed continuous improvement of these systems would only be possible by partnering with vendors: “When I started to lay the foundations for VMek, I searched for hardware and software partners that developed quality components the right way.”

During a presentation on the EtherCAT industrial Ethernet protocol, Lovvorn learned about the network’s ability to use PCs as real-time machine controllers and investigated using EtherCAT for high-speed vision machines. This led to the decision to standardize on EtherCAT input/ouput (I/O) hardware.

During a 2017 redesign of several systems, VMek set out to reduce costs and space requirements, but wanted to continue using EtherCAT hardware. This effort did not need to increase reliability, as the first machine that shipped in 2015 has operated without major faults or failures. VMek wanted to enhance its offerings and decrease time to market by reducing the amount of hardware modules and point-to-point wiring.

Pluggable I/Os reduce footprint, costs, assembly time

Through discussions, Lovvorn found a fitting solution: pluggable EtherCAT I/O terminals. These terminals mount directly to custom-designed PCB boards using predefined JST connectors, and the entire board connects to the larger PC-based system via prefabricated cables or coded plug connectors. Because the boards come prebuilt, this makes series production more efficient and cost effective compared to wired terminals.

“The core benefits were logical and came down to the ease of use that enables us to build distribution boards with the exact functionality, size, connectors and labeling we need,” Lovvorn said. “Because the board for each machine is customized for our designs and processes, we can build machines prior to buying the components, which delivers benefits in terms of equipment costs and just-in-time assembly.”

Sorting technologies advance through key partnerships

By implementing EtherCAT I/O modules with printed circuit boards (PCB) for each sorting machine, VMek was able to cut time to market significantly. “We estimate that we reduced our equipment assembly time by 50%,” Lovvorn said. “We have also minimized service time, if it’s ever needed.” Small adjustments at the hardware level helped VMek cut costs by roughly $700 per I/O segment, and the company reinvested these savings in R&D to continue to enhance its vision sorting machines and software.

Lovvorn had two goals: to make the best vision sorting software and hardware possible and to collaborate with companies that work to lead in their fields. “In our industry, every company’s sorting technology has to be fast and efficient, but through our innovation and partnerships, we offer more,” Lovvorn said. “As leaders in agribusiness, our customers see our complex sorting algorithms and ability to gather data on every part as indispensable.”

As VMek continues to enhance its vision sorting systems to better detect, eject and report for the top seed companies, he does not see this changing.

James Figy, marketing communications specialist, Beckhoff Automation. Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, Control Engineering, CFE Media, cvavra@cfemedia.com.


Keywords: EtherCAT, I/O module

A sorting technology company looked to improve speed with EtherCAT input/output (I/O) modules.

Implementing EtherCAT I/O modules with printed circuit boards (PCB) for each sorting machine, allowed the company to cut time to market.

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What benefits could your plant get from EtherCAT I/O modules?

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Author Bio: James Figy, marketing communications specialist, Beckhoff Automation