App-based programming offers easy route to tailored sensors

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Neil Sandhu Sick's UK Product Manager for Imaging, Measurement, Ranging and Systems, discusses the benefits offered by app-based programming for machine builders and system integrators wanting to create specialised sensors that perform very specific tasks.

App-based programming offers easy route to tailored sensorsIn our information-rich world, there is an app at our fingertips for just about anything we want in the blink of an eye. All the hard work has been done, and we do not expect to know anything about the programming behind the eye-catching user interface.

Could the same ever be possible for sensors? Will you be able to configure, commission and monitor a sensing application just by finding a ready-made 'app' on your smartphone that is already perfect for your requirements?

Sick has been pioneering the concept of app-based programming for its smart sensors. Its vision is for a Sick 'AppPool' - just like a smartphone app store - that is a go-to source of ready-developed, application-specific utilities for programmable devices. The concept is based around Sick's AppSpace software development platform that is now reaching maturity.

It might seem curious for a sensor company to be taking the lead in the field of software, yet, according Sick, once sensors become smart and programmable, it makes perfect sense. Sick believes advances in hardware have prompted a change of paradigm in software and systems delivery that points the way towards greater accessibility and ease-of-use for both designers and end-users, as well as the opportunity to offer customers complete solutions.

In the past two years, Sick has rolled out powerful, AppSpace-compatible devices and, at the same time, a growing 'basket' of apps is being developed both by Sick's own R&D teams and specialist market-focused integrators.

Machine builders, system integrators and developers will be able to access apps to set-up and configure the required software for their systems, and will be able to use or adapt existing applications without having to start from scratch.

Using Sick AppStudio, developers can create customer-specific applications and use the Sick AppManager to import apps into the sensor and adapt them to the task in hand. The Sick AppPool cloud service makes it easy to install, manage and download sensor apps to programmable Sick devices anywhere in the world.

Apps with a vision

While it can, and will, be a model that could be applied to all kinds of smart sensors, AppSpace offers the tantalising prospect of being a game-changer for machine vision in particular. Vision, and especially 3D vision, has historically required specialist programming expertise with expensive systems, huge processing power and bulky complex hardware.

AppSpace promises huge flexibility for vision engineers and programmers because they can customise a Sick camera or sensor for themselves, with full access to standard image libraries such as Halcon. Rather than having to use pre-developed proprietary software, AppSpace's open software platform enables system integrators and machine builders to develop and share their own tailor-made solutions. Meanwhile, Sick is rolling out its own Apps and making them available to provide plug-and-play solutions for end users.

First apps running

In the latest development, an AppSpace programmable version of Sick's Visionary T 3D snapshot time-of-flight imaging cameras, the Visionary T-AP, will be the first to be launched with a number of ready-made Apps already available.

Among the first integrators to successfully exploit the opportunities of Sick AppSpace has been AutoCoding Systems. Its new 4Sight Automatic Print Inspection System is an error-proof system for high-speed inspection of printed codes such as dates, batch and line numbers.

Using AppSpace to operate on Sick's Inspector P smart camera, AutoCoding's breakthrough innovation enables the 4Sight application to communicate directly with any brand of printer using standard inkjet, laser or thermal transfer technologies. Therefore there is no need to teach numerous images and fonts, as well as the context of the surrounding packaging design affecting the inspection.

The 4Sight software powered in AppSpace is able to self-optimise the code inspection process (see the image on the right). This means there can be no false reads as a result of the packaging background, or due to natural variation in the location of the printed code. The application enables users to determine acceptable print quality tolerances and define what is considered to be a good, bad or no-read, on a per-product basis.

Sick SensorApps

Sick, too, is developing Sensor Applications for use with programmable devices. Its Presence Inspection 1.0 is a freely downloadable, easy-to-configure SensorApp for its Inspector P family of programmable 2D vision cameras. The Sick Presence Inspection SensorApp has been developed in the AppSpace software environment to enable simple and economical pass/fail quality inspection tasks onboard the Inspector P smart camera family as standard.

Sick Presence Inspection (see right) can be downloaded from the SICK AppPool with a convenient user-guided setup and an accompanying tutorial video. A simple, web-based GUI (graphic user interface) guides the user to configure a selection of tools for image analysis to suit the application. Easy user setup and operation is therefore assured without the need for software skills or programming.

Sick Presence Inspection is easily integrated into new or existing machinery to master a wide variety of classic 2D presence inspection tasks, such as the validation of components in a final assembly, inspecting logos or graphics on packaging or labels, component presence inspection in automotive type testing, or confirming the presence of chocolates in a box.

Robot guidance

AppSpace has opened up opportunities for simple-to-setup robot guidance applications, including for collaborative robots (cobots). In a typical cobot application developed in AppSpace, a single camera with an app talks to the robot. It can be 'trained' to find a shape of a part or product, tell the robot how to pick it up and where to place it, all very accurately. Critically, the camera communicates directly with the robot and there is no control system in between.

The Sick TriSpector P1000 is a 3D vision camera that enables reliable, continuous in-line product detection to be easily customised for robotic belt picking applications. The Sick TriSpector P1000 is available either as a standalone unit for customised programming or supported by the Sick Belt Pick Toolkit App. The Sick Trispector P Beltpick is a complete vision-guided belt-picking system for industrial and collaborative robots, developed in AppSpace. It offers the improved z-axis control available through 3D vision, so products with complex profiles can be picked from variable heights without risk of damage.

Also developed using AppSpace, the Sick PLOC2D is an easy-to-setup 2D vision system for robot localisation of parts, products or packages, based on the Sick Inspector P vision sensor. Powered by a Sick-developed algorithm, it offers out-of-the-box integration with pick-and-place robots, and can be used with static workstations, moving belts or bowl feeder systems to handle much smaller parts than previously possible.

Earlier this year, Sick launched the PLB 520 3D robot-guidance system for bin-picking of smaller objects in more confined containers than was previously possible. Now typical tasks such as picking specific small parts - like bolts from a deep mixed parts bin - and placing them on a conveyor, or selecting part-completed items and placing on a press or machining centre, have become more feasible.

In the field of cobots, Sick has collaborated with Universal Robots to develop the Sick Inspector PIM60 URCap, an entry-level vision-guided system for pick-and-place, quality inspection and measurement. The Sick Inspector PIM60 URCap is a simple yet powerful toolkit for creating vision-guided tasks using UR3, UR5 or UR10 robots with minimum time and effort.

AGV forklifts

Among the most recent apps to be added into the AppPool is an automated system for the Visionary T-AP camera for guiding AGV forklifts to pick up pallets (see right). The Visionary T-AP is mounted on the AGV and integrated with the vehicle's control system to guide the forks safely into the pallet pockets, thereby reducing the risk of damage or accidents.

The pallet picking application demonstrates the versatility of the AppSpace platform, and the opportunities for system integrators and machine builders to provide more flexible, easy-to-use solutions for their customers.

Follow the link for more information about the AppSpace platform and AppPool.

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