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The brains behind an effective robot solution

07 January 2014

Since the development of the first industrial robot by George Devol and Joseph in 1959, which was controlled by a programme on a magnetic drum, robots and their controllers have come a long way. However, one thing remains the same – the robot would be useless without its ‘brain’, the controller.

While it is often the robot that catches the headlines, it is important to consider what its controller can offer too. Your chosen robot/controller package should have been developed from the ground up to work together.

Typically, users will specify the controller and robot as a package so it is important to know what functionality and benefits the controller can offer because the robot will only ever be as good as its controller. FANUC is the only company in its sector that develops and manufacturers its major components in-house and develops its own software solutions, so everything will, naturally, work well together without the need for huge amounts of integration work. This can help get a project up and running quickly – an important consideration in many sectors today, such as the food industry, where times to market are being constantly squeezed.

A single FANUC R-30iB controller, the company’s latest robot controller, is capable of controlling up to four robot arms and numerous additional axes, from a single CPU, with only the addition of control boxes to house the servo amplifiers and power components. One controller can support up to 4,096 points of I/O, which can come in many different formats.  It can support fieldbus protocols such as PROFIBUS, PROFINET, Ethernet/IP and DeviceNet. Further, the R-30iB controller is housed in a compact enclosure that is designed to allow three units to be stacked on top of each other to optimise the available floor space.

The controller is also able to control additional axes to enable specific functions to be achieved. For example, the use of more flexible and adaptable servo grippers in place of pneumatic grippers, which can help to future-proof your gripping needs. "The ability to control additional axes would allow the robot to be placed on a linear rail, for example, if it needs to cover a wider work envelope. A good solution for end of line packaging applications,” explains Darren Whittall, technical manager at FANUC (UK).

The control interface

The controller includes an iPendant Touch, handheld unit that acts as the interface between the operator and the controller. Although lightweight, the iPendant Touch is rugged and offers impressive graphics as well as touch-screen functionality. However, for operators that are required to wear gloves it can also be operated via push buttons.

The pendant does need to be physically attached to the controller by a wire for operational functions. However, there is a disconnect function that allows the robot to operate without it  – a useful feature in wash-down environments commonly found in the food industry.  It is also possible to interact with the controller via a computer, over Ethernet, to remotely visualise the operation and change system set-ups.

When looking at the features of a controller, it is also important not to forget its software capabilities. FANUC has developed its controller software tools to simplify and standardise the programming, setup and operation of the robot. Depending on the end-user application, the controller can be supplied with one of several application tools to simplify and standardise robot programming, set-up and operation. In addition, over 250 software functions are available to add additional functionality.

For food industry applications it is certainly worth considering a vision solution that can provide the inspection, position and orientation capabilities vital in many food industry applications.

"FANUC has developed iRVision, its own vision solution – both software and hardware – which is perfect for food applications. Cameras can be high-resolution, low-resolution or colour and can be connected directly to the controller,” said Whittall. "It brings easy-to-use vision capabilities to a robot cell. It is integrated into the controller so there is no third-party software required. Set up is via the robot system teach pendant. It all just works straight out of the box.”

Line tracking capabilities are also possible. "FANUC now has the ability to offer a user-friendly graphically driven way of programming visual line tracking applications,” said Whittall. "This feature enables applications that feature a single camera working with multiple robots. One robot is able to look after the camera and line tracking capability, passing data through to the other robots. This can offer hardware cost savings, as less hardware is needed.”

Safety included

One of the most important considerations when setting up a robot cell is operator safety. Making a cell safe can represent a considerable percentage of the total set up cost. FANUC has addressed this with a variety of safety solutions to ensure that all safety requirements for a robot cell are met in a cost-effect way with minimal hardware requirements.

Its Dual Check Safety (DCS) software options include position and speed check functionality. "This allows for the creation of safety zones that the robot is not allowed to enter.  It can also be applied to speed, ensuring that the robot does not exceed a set speed in certain areas of the cell,” explained Whittall.

Safety IO is another DCS software option. It enables communication capabilities via the PROFIsafe safety fieldbus, a dedicated safety communication technology that reduces the possibility of data transmission errors and can help achieve cost-effective and flexible functional safety.

"Another option is safety DCS PMC (programmable machine control) which, in effect, is an in-built safety PLC option. Instead of specifying a separate PLC to control the system is it possible for the controller to manage everything surrounding the robot, including the safety requirements.

"Having the ability to control all the process capabilities around the robot can offer benefits in terms of simplified control, as well as cost-savings by negating the need for additional hardware, particularly in small robot cells,” said Whittall.

Don't forget energy

Last, but not least, it is important to consider any potential energy saving features offered by the robot controller. The R-30iB excels in this area. Its cooling fans are temperature controlled – automatically being turned off or speed controlled according to the temperature.

Another interesting energy saving software feature is an adjustable timer that allows the operator to put the robot into a ‘low-power’ mode for periods down to one or two seconds (the default for this feature is 30 seconds). This can help reduce energy costs during robot waiting periods. "This feature can offer impressive energy saving benefits in some packaging lines,” explained Whittall. "For example, if the robot is picking up boxes from a conveyor belt and placing them on a pallet it only has one area it can work in. So, when the pallet is full the robot has to wait for it to be removed before it can continue. Putting the robot into a low-power mode during this period can help cut overall energy costs of the packaging operation.”

So, the controller really could be considered to be the ‘organ grinder’ to the robots ‘monkey’.  The R-30iB can offer a user-friendly control solution, for the whole process, in addition to the robot. The integrated FANUC hardware and over 250 software functions are also vital components which can help increase robot performance in terms of cycle-time, speed, accuracy and safety. Increased user-friendliness, minimum energy consumption and increased productivity.