Rockwell Automation says its iTRAK motion control system is rewriting the rule books across multiple industries, thanks to its game-changing approach to servo and motion control. A modular, scalable linear motor system that allows for independent control of multiple movers on straight or curvilinear paths, iTRAK offers users the ability to increases productivity significantly compared with traditional rotary-driven chain systems.
There have been numerous technological and philosophical breakthroughs in industry over the past 100 years that have subsequently heralded a raft of new machines, procedures and applications. From the concept of the production line, through early automation and the introduction of the integrated chip, and on to the Connected Enterprise and Industry 4.0, manufacturing industry has certainly not been devoid of important innovations.
Plenty of other new ideas have come and gone, with their longevity often being commensurate with the value that they deliver. But some technologies have successfully stood the test of time and it is these we now see as commonplace in the modern manufacturing environment. One example is electronically controlled servo and motion control, which soon proved their worth over traditional common-shaft, chain and mechanical-cam applications. Since its introduction, servo technology has undergone many changes and enhancements as speed, load, inertia and accuracy have all been improved to the extent where it is hard to envision them getting much better than they are now.
Quite often in these situations, where new developments are only delivering minor gains, it needs vision to imagine a new application for an existing concept - and this was certainly true with the development of iTRAK, which takes the concept of servo technology and combines it with something akin to the principles behind the maglev train. The result is a technology that delivers independent control of multiple movers on straight and curved paths to create a 'pitchless' machine. This innovative ability to combine both linear and rotary motion with independent travel results in a flexible, fully integrated system that can increase production throughput, reduce maintenance and help minimise the overall machine footprint.
Productivity gains of at least 50 per cent
Touted as a disruptive technology, iTRAK is described as a whole new way of thinking about production flow, with end-users already reporting remarkably high productivity gains of at least 50 per cent. Machine and equipment builders can reduce complexity and deliver higher performance, while allowing end users to achieve significantly higher productivity through increased speeds and flexibility. All of these benefits are delivered on a standardised platform for better optimisation, improved reliability and faster system deployment. The primary value it delivers in terms of speed is that it replaces mechanical parts with a magnetic field; this means that the production line can move at higher speeds, resulting in improved productivity. The removal of mechanical components also slashes maintenance costs.
The modular structure of the iTRAK system delivers incredible flexibility, as it allows for a multitude of different configurations. Much like a model railway or slot-car track, iTRAK's Curve and Linear modules can be combined to create track systems of any length or shape to fit specific application needs, including those with limited internal real estate. There are three options for orientation – horizontal, vertical or stand-up – which deliver even greater flexibility for system design.
Rapid payback of six months
In operation, iTRAK also reduces the downtime for changeovers because the movement profiles for each mover or set of movers can be easily reprogrammed to match varying production runs and products. As well as delivering the agility that so many manufacturers crave, this flexibility also allows them to undertake shorter runs without such a big impact on yield and profitability. Indeed, such is the positive impact on productivity that the TCO (total cost of ownership) is reduced significantly, and payback times can be typically be anything between just six and 24 months.
From a physical standpoint, iTRAK is suitable for a broad range of products and applications. It offers a high payload range of 0-100kg or more, and a high speed range of 0-5m/s. For industries where hygiene and wash down play a part, it offers ingress protection to IP65.
Although iTRAK is a technically complex product, it does not require mechanical engineers to learn new skills. Indeed, for such a powerful system, programming is said to be remarkably straightforward. iTRAK can be programmed using Rockwell Automation's Studio 5000 Logix Designer software, making it an integrated part of any control system. Each mover appears within the Logix program as a Virtual Motion Axis', making use of standard command instructions to deliver a system that can cater for product size changes, variable speeds and complex sequencing, all without undertaking any mechanical changes to the machine.
In the food and beverage industry, iTRAK is already seeing multiple applications. In one machine the independent movers are used to transport pouches from filling stations to sealing stations and, once unloaded, the movers traverse quickly back to the beginning of the line ready to pick up another pouch. At the touch of a button, the machine operator can change parameters such as fill time and seal time to suit the product and pouch materials, confident in the knowledge that the iTRAK programme will cater for potentially longer dwell times, all without having to make any mechanical adjustments or impacting machine performance.
In life sciences, one highly innovative application has seen iTRAK deployed in a blood testing machine. Each mover transports different sized glass substrate carriers between a variety of reagent 'print' stations, depending on the tests being undertaken. The iTRAK system is infinitely variable to cater for all possible print procedures.
In the packaging industry, iTRAK has seen action in collating machines where either the product or the packaging arrives intermittently. iTRAK simply accepts the packaged goods and then transports the filled carton away without being hindered by the randomness of the input.
With iTRAK, Rockwell Automation says that companies can now achieve the market's highest possible productivity per square metre. Hardware is replaced by software that quickly boosts speed and flexibility – and improves production efficiency more than any mechanically driven production line will ever be able to. In a traditional manufacturing belt the slowest process controls the pace; with iTRAK the fastest process now sets the pace.
Follow the link for more information about the Rockwell Automation iTRAK and to watch videos of customer applications.