PC-based control boosts sterile sampling bag production

Labplas redesigns custom production machines with EtherCAT, robotics and AI for quality control, ensuring ROI of less than one year on all upgrades, for 15 to 35% machine productivity increases.

By James Figy February 8, 2021


Learning Objectives

  • Labplas upgraded their operations by going with PC-based control to help better manage their operations.
  • Implementing open, PC-based solutions, helped each line achieve a return on investment (ROI) in less than a year.
  • Labplas boosted quality assurance and throughput across all sampling bag sizes, achieving an average productivity gain of 25%.

Attention to quality standards and flexibility in production are crucial for the aseptic sampling industry. After all, the sampling bags must carry sampling sponges, food items, pharmaceuticals or organic matter of all sizes for testing in labs and protect against contamination to ensure consumer safety.

Labplas designs, builds and implements leading-edge technologies at its Montreal-area production facility. A tailor-made machine line creates custom products ranging from 3- to 33-in.-wide bags in various material types with few changeovers, rather than only standard sizes of sampling bags and kits.

“We continuously improve our systems through automation to achieve even higher throughput for a larger number of products while maintaining our agility,” said Benoit Brouillette, general manager for Labplas.

CX2030 Embedded PCs from Beckhoff provide optimal machine control, while EtherCAT I/O modules offer real-time communication and data acquisition in the production of sterile sampling bags. Courtesy: Beckhoff[/caption]

Sampling reliable, open technologies

The engineering team prioritized system openness, which is necessary to increase data acquisition and to integrate third-party components and software in real-time. For example, Labplas wanted to upgrade its assembly technology to form sampling bags and insert the sampling accessories, such as sponges, cloths, spoons or scissors with a robot arm. Previously, operators manually inserted sponges and placed kits in the finished open-top bags. To achieve the design upgrade of the MM line, Labplas considered different form-fill-seal partnerships and designed a way of integrating this equipment with a six-axis robot.

All components needed to work together in real-time without cross-vendor communication issues, while collecting and storing data on company servers or dedicated computing hardware for reporting and process improvement.

In addition, the MM redesign was expected to serve as a model for future improvements plant-wide to increase throughput and make it easier for operators and maintenance personnel to move from one line to another, Brouillette said: “Our goal is to develop a standardized system in which the automation equipment and machinery will be as fixed as possible, even if we have very versatile lines with machines capable of producing over 1,000 different product types.”

Because traditional programmable logic controllers (PLCs) from a previous vendor could not support the robotic requirements, much less AI, Labplas began to seek new partnerships in 2015. The engineering team identified PC-based controls as the best approach.

Automation and control technologies, along with value-added services became components for processes and machines.

Robotics and software boost production

New machine designs included multiple PC-based control solutions, motion control hardware and universal automation software with kinematics. Labplas used robots across 15 lines, and the pick-and-place robots and other motion axes are fitted with servomotors controlled by EtherCAT servo drives. The high-performance synchronous servomotors provide very low rotor inertia and a very high overload capacity for dynamic applications. They connect to the drives using a one-cable design, which reduces wiring by combining power and feedback. The servo drives feature fast control algorithms with minimum current control, speed control and position control of 62.5 μs. “The servo drives must deliver incredible precision and acceleration for the servomotors, especially for the delta robots,” Fontaine said.

Using TwinCAT Kinematic Transformation software with Codian pick-and-place robots, along with other upgrades, made insertion of sampling implements six times faster. Courtesy: Beckhoff[/caption]

“The software supports programming in numerous languages simultaneously, including everything from IEC 61131-3 with object-oriented extensions to C languages, so we can use the appropriate one for each application,” Fontaine said. Free trial opportunities help define design needs and lower risk prior to purchase.

Thinking outside the bag for industrial hardware

To boost flexibility and repeatability, the MM machine lines rely on a number of other control solutions. Engineers and operators interact with the MM machines via built-in widescreen panels, which provide multi-touch display hardware with an IP65 rating on the outward-facing side. One-cable design combined power, USB 3.0 signal and DVI signal for control panels up to 100 m away from the PC-based machine controller.

A DIN-rail-mounted embedded PC is the main machine controller for the advanced MM lines. This PC-based controller featured a dual-core processor to automate the production of sampling products with the universal automation software.

Beckhoff AM8000 Servo Drives provide outstanding responsiveness for the Codian robots. Courtesy: Beckhoff[/caption]

Further increasing system openness, EtherCAT provides real-time networking and I/O solutions for the MM machine line. Fontaine explained DIN-rail-mounted I/O terminals connect to the embedded PCs and are distributed to connect with sensors, valves, terminal cards, solid-state relays (SSRs) and other devices on the MM machines:

“With one Ethernet cable, the EtherCAT protocol allows us to transfer information between the components at a higher speed than the controller cycle time, including the safety functionality,” he said.

Unsealing future productivity, flexibility

By implementing open, PC-based solutions, each upgraded Labplas line achieved a return on investment (ROI) in less than one year. They also increased the flexibility of the MM machines to produce more sizes with fewer changeovers and enabled the use of AI and robotics to complete processes quickly and at the highest quality.

Beckhoff Area Sales Manager Ted Sarazin (right) discusses current projects at Labplas with Automation Project Manager Christian Roy. Courtesy: Beckhoff[/caption]

Fontaine and his team designed, built and implemented the machines with robotics in-house, with training and technical assistance from applications and support engineers.

James Figy, senior content specialist, Beckhoff Automation LLC. Edited by Chris Vavra, web content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology, cvavra@cfemedia.com.

Keywords: PC-based control, robotics, plant floor upgrade


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