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.
- 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.
Based in Sainte-Julie, Quebec, the company serves customers in the food, agriculture, environmental, veterinary and pharmaceuticals industries, among others, through a network of independent distributors in roughly 55 countries. Products include sterile sampling bags, testing wand kits, bags for the food industry and environmentally-friendly biodegradable bags. The company added a microbiology lab in recent years for research and development and to ensure product quality and conformance for reliable sampling, though its main technological advances have been in automation and controls.
The MM machine line series has gone through many iterations between the first machine commissioned two decades ago and the company’s 24 production lines today. During a recent redesign of several MM lines, the engineering department implemented additional robotics and GigE cameras to improve throughput and repeatability, and they are in the process of deploying artificial intelligence (AI) for greater quality control, according to Christian Fontaine, Labplas R&D department manager. The key for Labplas in any upgrade is carefully considering the control platform down to the component level.
“To remain versatile enough to produce custom products, the MM lines have to sustain a high level of complexity. If you can’t trust every part of your machine, it’s impossible to trust the end results,” Fontaine said.
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.
An integrated functional safety drive card with built-in safe torque off (STO) and safe stop 1 (SS1) functionality also was used, with the option to add safety I/O hardware with programming via the standard automation software.
Beyond safety, this automation software serves as a universal software platform for the MM production lines’ PLC, motion control and other requirements. The software’s kinematic transformation supplements enable the design and commissioning of various robot types, including delta pick-and-place robots.
“With kinematic transformation, high-precision movement is possible even at high speeds and accelerations due to integrated dynamic pre-control,” and the automation software suite makes it possible to control the robots and machine line in real time, said, Ted Sarazin, regional sales manager for Beckhoff Automation.
“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.
“These industrial-grade PCs control all automated equipment, including the servo drives, sensors and so forth on the MM machine lines,” Fontaine said. “On the MM9 iteration, for example, the small embedded controller has to deliver the processing power needed to drive our complex machine with seven axes of motion along with one five-axis and two three-axis Delta robots, and still have available CPU bandwidth for quality monitoring and potential self-healing software.”
The embedded PCs also provide installation and processing power for third-party software that runs in a Microsoft Windows environment. This includes the customized Laplas AI implementation for quality control.
“We are deploying AI tools on the bag lines mainly to detect and handle defects autonomously on product and predict quality by monitoring equipment condition with data from the motors, sensors and cameras,” Brouillette said. “This would be impossible without significant computing power.”
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.
“By performing quality control with AI directly on the machine, the operator can focus on the supply and packaging of products rather than the quality control. This also allows us to implement predictive maintenance, addressing any equipment and process issues before they halt production,” Brouillette said.
Beyond increasing quality assurance, Labplas also boosted throughput across all sampling bag sizes, achieving an average productivity gain of 25% on redesigned MM machines. “As the bag sizes become wider, the gains in efficiency diminish slightly,” he said. “Therefore, we gained on average 15% productivity for bags wider than 10 inches and up to 35% for our smaller formats.” In addition, the insertion of sampling kits on the MM8 is now six times faster through the addition of robots and the other upgrades implemented.
Fontaine and his team designed, built and implemented the machines with robotics in-house, with training and technical assistance from applications and support engineers.
Keywords: PC-based control, robotics, plant floor upgrade
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