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Levitating transport system promises ‘new manufacturing era’

28 January, 2021

ABB’s Austrian subsidiary B&R Automation has announced a magnetically levitating shuttle system with six degrees of freedom for moving items freely around production machines. It claims that the rail-free Acopos 6D system, which can carry items weighing from 0.6–14kg at speeds of up to 2m/s with a positioning repeatability of ±5µm, heralds “a new era for manufacturing”.

The contactless, noiseless shuttles glide independently between stations, without being bound to a rigid, sequential production flow. They can carry objects within, or between, machines, which can simultaneously manufacture different product variants or even entirely different products. Each shuttle navigates its own way through the production process, among a swarm of others, taking its product on a unique path to the stations it needs to achieve customised production.

B&R developed the new system in cooperation with Planar Motors Inc (PMI), a Canadian company with more than 15 years of r&d experience in the field of magnetic levitation technology for industrial manufacturing. ABB, has taken a “significant” stake in PMI as part of a partnership agreement that will see PMI’s levitation technology being integrated into B&R’s portfolio to accelerate the transition from linear production to open, adaptive manufacturing. It will help users to move to flexible, precision manufacturing in response to the shift to batch size one production and shorter product lifecycles.

“With Acopos 6D we are once again pushing the boundaries of technology,” says Sami Atiya, president of ABB Robotics & Discrete Automation. The technology, he adds, offers “unprecedented flexibility” for a wide range of industries, including pharmaceuticals and healthcare. “We are complementing our industry-leading robotics and machine automation portfolio and fostering our position as the only company to offer machine manufacturers and industrial customers the entire range of integrated hardware and software solutions from a single source.”

The Acopos 6D shuttles with built-in permanent magnets float above the surface of square electromagnetic motor segments each measuring 240 x 240mm, which can be arranged freely to create any shape. As well as moving in two dimensions, the shuttles (which come in ten sizes) can also rotate and tilt on three axes, and offer precise control over the height of levitation from 0.5-4mm. Acceleration rates of up to 20m/s2 are possible.

Each shuttle can also act as a weighing station, measuring its payload with an accuracy of ±1g, independent of the weight of the load. This can eliminate the need for separate weighing stations, resulting is smaller machines.

B&R claims that its system offers up to four times the shuttle density of rival systems. Four independently controlled shuttles can move simultaneously on the same motor segment in different directions and at different speeds.

The shuttles levitate freely without any contact or friction. With no abrasive wear, there are no parts to maintain. Placing a stainless-steel cover over the motor segments can provide the system with IP69K protection, making it suitable for use in cleanrooms or food and beverage production.

The levitating shuttles can move items freely through a machine, avoiding the rigidly defined timing needed for conventional transport systems. The flexible system is suitable for small-batch production with frequent changeovers between products of different designs and sizes.

B&R’s Acopos 6D levitating transport system can move items weighing up to 14kg with six degrees of freedom

The Acopos 6D system is compatible with other B&R technologies, allowing the shuttles to be synchronised with servo axes, robots, track systems and machine vision cameras. Path planning for the shuttles is done in a dedicated controller, networked via Powerlink. It has no impact on the performance of the network or the machine control system.

Each controller can handle up to 200 segments and 50 shuttles. For larger installations, multiple controllers can be synchronised with each other.

The segments are powered via a DC bus, allowing braking energy to recovered and shared between the shuttles, thus improving the system efficiency. The use of a low-voltage supply avoids the need to have specially-trained maintenance personnel. Each segment typically consumes about 50W and is equipped with water-cooling capabilities, in case this is needed.

The shuttles can operate vertically as well as horizontally – and even in an inverted position. If power is lost, the DC power can be buffered, allowing the shuttles to be “parked” in their current location.

Unlike rival systems, each shuttle has a unique ID. At start-up, the controller immediately knows the location of each shuttle on the motor segments, and production can start without time-consuming homing sequences or input by an operator. The positioning repeatability of ±5µm makes the system suitable for precision applications, such as those found in the electronics industry and in the assembly of mechanical and electronic components.

The non-contact, lubricant-free movement with no mechanical wear means that the shuttle system is suitable for hygienic applications in the pharmaceutical, food and electronics industries. Dario Rovelli, head of product management in B&R’s motion and mechatronic systems division, believes that other application areas will include buffering and sorting in packaging machines (where the built-in weighing function could save space and complexity), and assembly lines for items such as automotive components and batteries, where the levitating system could offer a “quasi cleanroom environment”.

Operation of an Acopos 6D installation can be simulated before it is built. Algorithms ensure that the shuttles follow an optimal path, while avoiding collisions and minimising energy consumption. They can operate in “swarms”, performing multiple processes simultaneously. Rovelli likens the technology to “an AGV system for the desktop”. He says that B&R’s existing Acopostrak system is complementary to Acopos 6D, providing transport between production stations, while the new system is designed primarily to operate within stations.

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