Seeing the smart future

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Torsten Zoeller, senior marketing communications manager for Cognex, Europe, discusses the requirements for smart cameras in facilitating factories of the future

Even without a crystal ball, we’d like to envision a factory of the future: friendly robots and humans working side-by-side in a light-filled, clean and quiet environment, producing perfect products for individual needs. Today, this seems to be a long way off – but, with collaborative robots and Industry 4.0, this future has already started.

Although few plants are fully implementing these new technologies, the fact that factories are starting to adopt such models demonstrates the requirements for machine vision manufacturers. These include:

• Flexibility of machine vision systems: Smaller lot sizes require more flexible smart cameras to facilitate more frequent product changes on manufacturing lines. Flexibility can be understood on a software level – identifying a product triggers the respective inspection job – or on a hardware level, where lenses and mounting positions can easily be changed.

• Ease of use: Smaller lot sizes down to single units increase the need to trace products in a tight knit automation process. In the short- to mid-term, this will expose more people to smart cameras – people who then have to be able to operate these systems without specific machine vision knowledge. At the same time, these applications have to be robust enough to withstand smaller changes in the production environment. In the long-term, it will require less human interaction – as machines communicate among themselves – but the application still needs to be robust in order to guarantee seamless production processes.

• Generating next-level data: Smart cameras and barcode readers mostly generate manufacturing data. In many cases, it is a simple input/output – the image is captured (input), evaluated, and the information determines the output signal to a robot, SPS, screen, and so on. Furthermore, this consolidated production data can be used as input again for the next level, for monitoring and further process control.

• Increase in quality level: Mass producers in emerging countries aim to increase their level of quality by implementing more stringent quality control procedures. This, again, will increase the need for robust systems and applications that are easy to reproduce and easy to operate. Simultaneously, there are limits to manual quality inspection where part features – or assembly tasks – simply exceed human capabilities.

• Global field support: As the level of automation increases globally, manufacturers are asked to provide closer field-level support for an international customer base. Global client accounts are standardising and centralising their purchasing, so the decision for a global supplier will depend as much on a tight and competent service network as on pure price.

Of course, neither robots nor cobots are ‘friendly’ – they have sensors not senses. They don’t care about a quiet or light-filled environment. Our vision of a factory of the future comes from a human perspective of today, but we will find out if the transition will be a revolution or more of a gradual evolution – from factories of today to those of the future.