The European Business Review estimates that since the Covid pandemic, businesses have increased their reliance on automation to not just operate complex tasks faster and continuously, but in some instances it has been the only method available as workplace access for human workers was restricted.

Industry has seen great advances in automation in the last century. It is 110 years since Henry Ford introduced the moving assembly line to his plant following a visit to a meat packing factory where he saw the process. Having workers stationary and producing vehicle parts rather than moving along the line to assemble a single Model T accelerated productivity in 1913.

The assembly model was widely adopted, and industries of all sectors have never looked back. The introduction of robotics and motorised production lines has not only accelerated the rate of production but also relieved staff of routine tasks, or heavy lifting duties.

Adding intelligence to robotic processes and operations is a sector which is also growing to build flexible, scalable and responsive production systems. Deloitte estimates that the intelligent automation sector is growing at a CAGR of 40.6% and will reach $25.66 billion by 2027. This includes robotic process automation (RPA) using machine learning, as well as equipment for automating repetitive manual tasks.

Food on the move

Food quality inspection is a large part of this automation. Advantech has developed the MIC-710AIX AI inference system based on NVIDIA’s Jetson Xavier NX embedded computer. The compact and fanless design supports deep learning and is used for AI-powered optical sorting and classification.

The embedded computing systems make up the AI optical sorter used, for example by coffee producers to inspect green coffee beans before roasting. Automating this process to detect discolouration, fermentation, mould, insect damage and chipped or broken shells before roasting can accelerate production and reduce the risk of error.

Advantech’s AI optical sorter is based on the MIC-710AIX AI inference systems based on the NVIDIA Jetson Xavier NX (pictured) and the company’s MIC-770V2 compact, fanless modular industrial PC, which uses the 10th Generation Intel Xeon/Core I CPU socket (LGA1200) and Intel W480E/H420E chipset.

Using CPUs and GPUs for image acquisition and processing, a data-driven algorithm trains the system to determine the quality of the bean and classifies it before the image is processed and analysed according to a set of ‘good bean’ criteria.

The MIC-770V2 has an integrated CameraLink camera which captures images of coffee beans as they move through the feeder’s conveyor system. These images are transmitted to the MIC-710AIX which is wireless linked to sensors along the conveyor carrying the coffee beans from the hopper to the collection point. When a defective bean is detected, a jet of compressed air expels the rejected bean via an ejector mechanism into a separate collection area.

High hygiene standards

The food processing industry has its strict hygiene standards to which automated equipment is subject, including regular high pressure, high temperature wash-downs. For this reason, industrial computers which monitor and control and ingredients and preparation processes, need to be designed to be rugged and waterproof as much as for its compute performance.

Taiwan’s Wincomm has developed a range of IP69K, flat PCAP stainless steel panel PCs specifically for the food industry.  The WTP PCs are sealed to withstand the wash-down processing which often include cleaning agents to sterilise equipment and the surrounding areas - temperatures can be up to 80°C and at pressures up to 30Bar.

The PCs are based on the Intel Core i5-7200U Kaby Lake and Celeron J1900 processors and housed in steel enclosures made from SUS304 stainless steel, with flat edges. The front panel is also flat to prevent the build-up of any particles on the bezels. The PC’s M12 waterproof connectors can be exchanged for SUS304 stainless steel ones which provide increased acid resistance compared with zinc alloy connectors.

The enclosure has air vents to expel the hot air to maintain the air pressure balance in the panel PC which operates in an environment that is subject to rising and falling temperatures.

Another design consideration for panel PCs in this demanding environment is support for wireless communication between process areas and a central control. Wincomm uses a PCB antenna and cover which can be cleaned easily in place of a conventional wireless di-pole antennas. The di-pole versions can be knocked and damaged during cleaning. They also require more space than an integrated PCB antenna.

The company also offers the WTD series of sealed monitors for incorporation into food processing systems. These monitors have a flat, five-wire resistive touch panel and are in a stainless-steel chassis. They are designed with connectors on the underside to save installation space.

The Wincomm WTD sealed, industrial-grade steel monitors are available in a choice of sizes : 15-, 19- and 22-inch from Relec Electronics. The distributor can also supply the monitors with PCAP (projected capacitive) touch technology. This touch sensitive display technology uses a conductive grid placed between the glass and the LCD panel. Touching the glass alters the electromagnetic field of the grid to display the touchpoint. One design advantage is that PCAP touch displays do not need large bezels so they can be integrated easily into confined spaces.   

Relec also offers the Elgen range of fanless panel PCs which are based on the Intel 7th / 6th Gen Kaby Lake-U or Skylake-U cores and a PCAP touch panel, LAN, USB, HDMI, DisplayPort and COM ports.

Available in a range of sizes from 12.1 to 21.5 inches, they are supplied in stainless steel enclosures and certified for use in the food industry. Toughened glass protects the PC from high pressure water jet cleaning although they also have an optical bonding of Mosmite film, which prevents condensation build-up obscuring the data on the screen as the temperature rises and falls during the cleaning and rinsing processes using hot and cold water. These panel PCs are also certified up to IP69K.

Weighing up the Ethernet

In most industrial automation sectors, Ethernet is the communication protocol of choice. Industrial Ethernet is predominately TCP/IP ahead of Ethernet-based field buses to connect supervisory control systems.  EtherCAT is a younger communication standard based on IEEE 802.3 and transmits data only, for a faster communication protocol. Ethernet transmits data and configuration information to address the entire infrastructure, whereas EtherCAT does not route data through different nodes in a master/slave configuration but sends data from a master to a node on the network. This faster, single stream operation means EtherCAT is typically used in robotic systems, packaging machines and automated assembly systems.

One of the more unusual developments has been in weighing electronics. In the accelerated pace of food processing, the ability to sample and weigh products with high accuracy contributes to a fast throughput as well as to quality assurance.

The Siwarex WP351 is an intelligent weighing module which measures 20 x 65mm. Siemens says it is one of the smallest weighing electronics units available. It has a 1,000Hz sampling rate and delivers a digital response in less than one millisecond. It is equipped with intelligent firmware allowing users to control the weighing process and the device can be commissioned or maintained via an Ethernet-connected web server.

As industrial processes have evolved and improved over the decades, they have incorporated many of the technological advances enjoyed outside of the factory environment such as wireless communication and digitisation of analogue functions. As AI is introduced, these processes are set to advance further with data and intelligence as much a part of the production cycle as monitoring and control.