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Integrating conveyors with smart transport is ‘a game-changer’

09 May, 2018

Just months after B&R Automation unveiled its AcoposTrak flexible production line transport technology at the SPS IPC Drives show, it has unveiled an enhancement that allows the technology to be integrated with conventional conveyors. The development, announced at the Hannover Fair, allows products to be carried almost entirely by low-cost conveyor belts – except for sections where they need to be handled and processed individually, where the AcoposTrak takes over.

Both systems use the same guide rails, and transitions between them are said to be seamless. B&R says that the combination of the two technologies will allow “mass customisation” capabilities to be added to existing production lines.

Robert Kickinger, B&R’s manager of mechatronic technologies, describes the new development as “a real game-changer for the economics of flexible manufacturing”.

“A hybrid setup like this is the perfect way to combine the flexibility of AcoposTrak with the low cost of conventional conveyors,” Kickinger argues. “You get the best of both worlds –­ it suddenly becomes possible to do flexible manufacturing in a cost-effective way.”

The development “makes it possible to receive incoming shuttles, loaded with workpiece-holders and products, directly from a conveyor, process them flexibly on AcoposTrak, and then return them to the conveyor in a controlled way,” he explains.

“Just imagine: you want to set up a value-added batch-of-one production line. All you need is one short segment of intelligent transport to gain the needed flexibility. The rest of the line can easily be realised with a low-cost conventional conveyor.”

The AcoposTrak will work with a slightly modified belt or chain conveyor system. All you need is a guide to feed to the wheels of the B&R system.

Kickinger suggests that, with the new enhancement, many applications that could benefit from transport flexibility will become economically feasible for the first time ­­– or more profitable than before.

“The added cost of personalised products needs to offset the added cost of achieving flexibility,” he points out. “This added cost has been reduced dramatically.”

Kickinger believes that there are three key factors that differentiate AcoposTrak from other flexible transport technologies, especially when transferring between conveyors and “intelligent” transport systems.

First, the AcoposTrak shuttles are held on the track by magnetic forces alone – unlike other intelligent track systems that need tools to take their carriers off the track, making the on-the-fly handoffs needed for hybrid transport systems impossible. Instead they need dedicated handling systems, such as robots, that add complexity and costs.

Transferring fully loaded shuttles between AcoposTrak and a conventional conveyor “is easy and straightforward,” says Kickinger.

Products can now be transferred from conventional conveyors (left), to the AcoposTrak system (right) where different production processes can be performed on each item – and back again.

A second differentiator is the design of the long-stator linear motors, on which most intelligent track systems are based.

Some systems use standard three-phase windings in the motor segments, similar to those in conventional rotary servomotors

An alternative approach is to control the current into each motor coil individually – this is how AcoposTrak works. Unlike the conventional design, this allows fully independent movement control of any number of shuttles on any segment.

It also allows product pitches as small as 50mm. “This is especially important for consumer packaged goods,” Kickinger contends. “Just walk through a supermarket and you’ll notice how many products that we use every day are sized around 50mm.”

The third differentiator is AcoposTrak’s space-saving design. Each track segment integrates the motor, as well as power and signal electronics, and a processor. “You do not need an array of additional motion controllers and servodrives to control an AcoposTrak,” Kickinger points out. “This minimises both the machine footprint and the cabinet space requirements. All you need in the cabinet is a PC-based control system and a 60V DC power supply.”

Robert Kickinger reports that since the new track system was launched at SPS IPC Drives, the market response has been “enthusiastic”. He believes that the new development “strongly expands the application range of AcoposTrak”, and will boost adoption of the technology.

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