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Vision-Enabled Flexible Vibratory Bowl Feeder Handles 400+ Different Parts

Rixan Associates proposed cognex inspection system setup

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The vibratory bowl conveyor provides an economical and reliable method of presenting small parts in a given orientation. However, a key weakness of the vibratory bowl feeder is that its use of mechanical channels and guides to orient parts limits it to handling just one part or a family of similar parts. The task of loading aerospace fasteners into a press seemed to be ideally suited for automation with a vibratory bowl feeder and a pick-and-place robot. The problem was that the 415 parts involved would have required dozens of different feeders.

Rixan Associates, Inc. developed a unique take on the vibratory bowl feeder concept by using machine vision to replace the channels and guides in order to handle a virtually unlimited number of parts within a certain size range. The feeder uses the vibratory bowl feeder concept to randomly present the parts in the bowl in any possible orientation. When the vision system views the right part in the right orientation, it stops the feeder and sends the part’s location to a robot which loads the part into the press. The patent-pending Rixan RFS-1000, flexible vibratory bowl feeder system, which costs about $45,000, provides a 20% improvement in productivity and eliminates the need for an operator, providing less than a one year return on investment for most users.

Making vibratory bowl feeders flexible

Traditional vibratory bowl feeders use a helical shelf-like inclined ramp winding upwards from the bottom of a bowl to a discharge passageway. The passageway’s reciprocating motion pushes the parts up the ramp. Obstructions, cutouts and other orienting devices are arranged along the passageway to topple off parts that are improperly oriented and allow through only those parts that are properly oriented. Vibratory bowl feeders are normally able to handle only a single family of very similar parts. Each different part in a family requires changing or adjusting the obstructions and orienting devices which can take considerable time. As a result, despite its high efficiency and relatively low cost, the vibratory bowl concept is usually not seriously considered for applications involving large numbers of different parts.

Stephen Harris, President of Rixan Associates, felt that recent improvements in the speed, accuracy and reliability of vision systems would make it possible to use a vision system to replace channels and guides to deliver a flexible vibratory bowl feeder. Harris got the opportunity to validate this concept when he competed for a potential customer processing a wide variety of high-value aerospace fasteners in a stamping press. Previously, an operator picked parts out of a bin and loaded them in the proper orientation in the press. The manufacturer wanted to automate this operation because of the potential danger involved in having the operator place his hands into the press. Additionally, the repetitive nature of the task required the operator to take frequent breaks which limited the productivity of the application.

Description of new vibratory feeding concept

Rixan engineers, led by Chief Technical Officer Mark Battisti, developed a unique flexible feeding concept that uses a track on a 24-inch vibratory bowl without the obstructions and cutouts. Every part that reaches the top of the bowl is presented onto a raised semitransparent plenum so the vision system mounted above can easily identify the type of each part and its orientation. The correct parts are picked by the robot while incorrect parts are recycled into the bowl.

Rixan selected a Cognex In-Sight® 5401 vision system and a Mitsubishi Electric RV-6SL-S11 robot that have been integrated through a joint development effort between Cognex and Mitsubishi Electric. Mitsubishi Melfa-Vision software incorporates robotic programming software as well as Cognex In-Sight Explorer software to set up both the robot and the vision system simultaneously as an integrated solution. This new approach makes it easy to create vision-driven robotic applications with capabilities such as locating and inspecting parts that go far beyond what robots alone can accomplish.

Melfa-Vision includes standard job programs supporting most common robot applications, enabling novices to easily develop robotic vision applications with up to three robots and seven vision systems. Rixan engineers picked the Mitsubishi Electric robot because it is fast—moving at up to 6 meters per second—and because it has a long reach. They selected the Cognex In-Sight 5401 vision system because it provides up to seven times the processing power of other models and acquires up to 60 full 8-bit images per second.

New parts can be programmed in minutes

To develop the application, Rixan engineers first ran the Melfa-Vision wizard that calibrates the robot in relation to the feeder. Then, they put a part in the robot gripper in the ideal orientation for pickup. They jogged the robot over the feeder and set the part down on the plenum. This process taught the robot to pick up the part in this orientation at this point on the plenum. Next, they selected a Melfa-Vision wizard that runs the Cognex PatFind® object location tool and drew a rectangle around the part on the screen. The PatFind tool instantly recognized the part in the zero angle of orientation. This process, which took only a few minutes, is all that was required to program the feeder to handle a single part.

From this point on, the vision system automatically recognizes the specific part as it moves across the plenum. When it sees the part, the system sends a signal to stop the feeder. It then acquires one last image to determine the exact position of the part and calculates its angle of presentation. The robot moves to the location of the part, twists its wrist to match the part’s orientation, picks up the part and sends a signal to restart the feeder once all “pickable” parts have been removed.

Most parts in this application are symmetrical top to bottom so they can be identified from their silhouette with the plenum backlit as described above. Some other parts must have a certain side facing upwards before they can be loaded on the press. The Cognex PatMax® tool is used to recognize which side is up on these parts. All that is required to train the vision system is placing a part on the plenum in the proper orientation and selecting the PatMax feature from within MELFA-Vision. Top-down lighting is used for parts where pattern recognition is required. White lighting is used for some parts and glare-free polarized lighting for others.

Parts that are in the wrong orientation are simply recycled back into the bowl and continue going around until they become properly oriented. The vision system is able to distinguish one part from another so operators do not have to clean out the bowl when changing from one part to another. The parts remaining from the previous run will pass through the feeder without being used until the corresponding program runs again.

Eliminates an operator and increases productivity 20%

The fastener manufacturer originally ordered a single Rixan feeding system and programmed it for a few parts. The first feeding system was so successful that the manufacturer has already purchased two additional systems and is in the process of programming them to handle its full range of parts. The feeding system is slightly slower than an operator working at full speed but, since the system does not take breaks it provides an increase of 20% in productivity compared to a human operator. The vision system also eliminates errors that can occur in manual feeding such as putting the part into the press in the wrong orientation, potentially damaging the tooling and causing substantial downtime.

“A key to the success of this application is the ease-of-setup, accuracy and reliability of Cognex In-Sight vision systems,” Harris said. “The customer is extremely pleased with the vision system performance as well as the tight integration between the vision systems and robots. The PatMax tool that we use to recognize part features is much faster and more accurate than other comparable industry tools that we have seen. Finally, the easy integration between Cognex vision systems and Mitsubishi robots drastically reduces the amount of time required to develop a vision-enabled robot applications and in most cases eliminates the need for writing a single line of code. Vision-enabled robots now make it possible for the first time to apply efficient and economical vibratory bowl feeding to automate applications with many parts.”

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