Innovation Through Collaboration
Ceramicx Ireland is a global leader of infrared heating technologies and services. Ceramicx has a strong track record of collaboration with Irish and European-based research institutions, with award winning innovative solutions (KTI award 2017). Ceramicx recognises the importance of product transparency and product traceability. This model is driven by high-quality standards, and an ethical responsibility to ensure high-power electrical heating products are safe for consumer utilisation throughout the lifecycle of the product.
A significant challenge for Ceramicx was how to universally test their highly variant product portfolio of more than 150 part types, while maintaining a high level of processing speed and ensuring the system is open for new future part types and test features. This challenge is multi-dimensional, and its complexity increases with the desire to harness the power of digital services outlined in Industry 4.0 and the smart factory of the future. These challenges set out goals for project CIRCLE, an innovation collaboration between Ceramicx and Trinity College Dublin.
Introducing Project CIRCLE
Project CIRCLE aims to develop a fully automated, yet reconfigurable, product test and validation system. The products tested included ceramic and quartz heating elements, which vary in size, shape, mechanical, and electric properties. We categorised test operations into electrical characteristics, thermal quality, and serial printing.
The project goals dictated the design of the system. Test stations operate in parallel to ensure high-speed processing. A central conveyor transfers parts between stations. Test stations are modular with plug-and-play operation, which makes for a reconfigurable and flexible process for current and future requirements. We utilised supervisory control to autonomously align the test parameters of decentralised test stations to test different part types. A single operator is required to run the machine, by selecting what part type to process and then serially loading and unloading parts.
The idea to abstract a complex process into simpler more dedicated processes is rooted in the philosophical paradigms of holonic and agent-based design. We can now construct a manufacturing process out of collaborative building blocks, capable of dedicated actions, while achieving collective goals. To develop this idea, the TCD research team turned to NI and its range of dedicated, fully reconfigurable controllers, modular I/O, and cross-platform programming tools.
The Importance of Modular Design
Project CIRCLE decentralises testing operations into dedicated test stations. These test stations utilise CompactRIO controllers for real-time control. Each test station utilises unique test and actuation equipment, (for example, high-potential testers, thermal cameras, or motor drives). All sensors, devices, and actuators connect to the station’s CompactRIO controller through industrial communication protocols, or dedicated C Series I/O modules, including the NI 9375 digital I/O, the NI 9219 universal analogue input, the NI 9213 temperature input module, and the NI 9403 high-speed pulse generator. During this process, NI provided fast and informative technical support to ensure we selected the right equipment for each test station.
Using a dedicated CompactRIO controller per station powers a modular design. Thanks to the CompactRIO platform, test stations are now plug-and-play units. We can reconfigure a test process with different test stations depending on the test requirements of the products. We can seamlessly integrate future tests with the development of new test stations. Modifications in test stations do not affect the operation of other test stations. Each connected test station’s CompactRIO controller can communicate with each other and the system “supervisor” using software we wrote using LabVIEW. This creates a fully connected and interoperable system, capable of true parallel processing through decentralised CPUs.
An instrumental orchestra can consist of a large number of talented musicians, but requires a conductor to lead them toward creating a beautiful symphony. Similarly, a decentralised machine requires a conductor to unite the stations into achieving a global goal. The conductor is a communication hub, which leverages the IIoT to monitor, configure, and manage test stations over a network. The engineering research team at TCD uniquely developed the conductor, programmed it with LabVIEW, and released it as a Windows OS executable. The conductor acts as network program “producer,” which identifies what program to run for each part type in each test station, the “consumer.” Uniquely, the conductor utilises a software plug-in portal, so developers can integrate custom software VIs, external applications, and data services.
An example of the plug-in portal can be seen in the integration of the Thermal Analysis
Application (TAA). The TAA characterises the thermal output of heating elements by combining the sensing capability of an IR camera with the analysis functions in the LabVIEW Vision Module. The TAA is an executable app that links to the SR-TEX conductor through a software plug-in. Together, the plug-in portal and the IIoT modular test station represent a collaborative cyber-physical system (CPS) in Industry 4.0.
The Impact of Our Work
We live in a digital age of manufacturing made possible through the convergence of high-power, low-cost computation and communication. For a manufacturer to stay competitive in the market place, it needs to be flexible. It needs to effectively react to changes in market demands. This requires the accommodation of new product types, new product features, and at varying production volumes. The machines of the future will harness the individual power of smart devices to produce a collaborative synergy that can overcome any obstacle.
Project CIRCLE identifies the capability of decentralised control and collaboration to meet the requirements of a progressive manufacturing enterprise. The underlying architecture is characterised as a Smart Reconfigurable Test EXecution platform. This is a universal decentralised monitoring, control, and management platform that can create any automated testing line for parallel product test and validation. NI technology made this platform possible by bridging the research gap between concept and reality.
Dr Jeff Morgan
Manufacturing Engineering Research Group, Trinity College Dublin
Manufacturing and Mechanical Engineering Department, Trinity College Dublin