Optimize Your Customers’ Machine Vision Investment
| By: Winn Hardin, Contributing Editor
Machine vision systems are big-ticket, mission-critical assets that need to be robust enough to run 24/7 yet remain flexible enough to accommodate fast-changing process requirements. These functional requirements mean that training, maintenance, and future-proofing are at the heart of most operating systems.
“Documentation and training is a pretty large feature of an automation system,” says Steve Wardell, Director of Imaging at ATS Automation (Cambridge, Ontario, Canada). ATS provides standard approaches and documentation that includes operating and maintenance manuals.
Documentation is an important part of what enables customers to take care of themselves, adds Brian Durand, President of i4 Solutions (St. Paul, Minnesota). “A lot of customers have turnover in their maintenance departments,” he says. The pace of employee turnover often means that technicians and operators who were trained when the system was installed may be gone within a year or two. That means that “regular training is recommended as a good idea for a lot of customers,” he says.
i4 Solutions provides customers with operating manuals that detail specific applications or installations, and also offers documentation that is specific to a customer’s unique installation. For example, Durand says that site-specific documentation might cover communication interfaces with an existing PLC, or inspections that may pertain solely to a customer’s process application.
ATS offers several levels of training that can be tailored to meet the customers’ needs. “Depending on the customer’s savvy and how well they have worked with other equipment that we or another manufacturer have provided, that level of training can range from next to nothing to full in-house training here [at ATS offices] or at the customer’s site,” Wardell says.
The company offers ATS University, which comprises a set of training packages that focus on specifics of automation. “We offer accreditation on three levels of automation expertise” for operators, technicians and engineers, Wardell explains. “We can provide that training to any of their people.”
Such college-like training provides customers with a solid foundation in the basics of automation. That means that as employees come and go, the organization is better able to manage personnel turnover while maintaining their business. The organization knows what needs to be done to have appropriate training in place, Wardell says.
Wardell also notes the trend for fewer companies to keep in-house maintenance expertise. These companies opt, instead, to contract out that work.
“Our service and maintenance offerings are a growth area for us right now,” Wardell says. As a result, the company not only designs systems, but also offers multi-year maintenance contracts.
Many companies have significantly reduced the size of their maintenance departments to save on costs. Without internal maintenance resources, these companies typically look for third-party help with maintenance. “These customers really are looking to outsource some portion of the responsibility for keeping the system operating at its peak,” i4 Solutions’ Durand says. At the same time, however, relatively few customers are keen to allow remote access to their systems by these same third-party providers. “People are very reluctant to allow remote access,” he adds.
“We’re seeing more [maintenance outsourcing] in the health sciences industry as opposed to the automotive industry, for example,” adds ATS’s Wardell. Traditionally, the automotive industry has supported robust in-house maintenance capabilities. By comparison, industries that are comparatively newer to automation have fewer in-house maintenance resources and are prime candidates for outside help.
Agreeing on the Fine Print
A successful maintenance contract requires that all parties understand and agree on what the maintenance contract covers. “For us, typically, it’s an on-site presence once a month,” says Durand. “Sometimes, it depends on the number of machine vision systems the customer has. The monthly visit is not time-consuming, but allows us to review each system to ensure it is operating at peak performance, and to answer questions posed by operators or technicians.”
In addition, the company reviews system log files to look for problems that may not be readily apparent. “Sometimes, we’ll see some component that’s beginning to wear or degrade. It’s valuable to capture that before it becomes a problem,” Durand says.
The company’s standard service contract also covers incremental software updates. “For example, we’re not going to take them from version 1 to version 10 at no charge,” he says. “But we continuously make enhancements to our software, and we deliver those to our service customers for no extra charge.”
What About Spare Parts?
For some customers, a service contract is defined to include an extended warranty or even a spare-part inventory. On that score, Durand says that his company specifies standardized components as much as possible to help with parts availability and replacement times.
ATS’s approach is to offer customers a selection of spare parts as the system is being developed. Rather than wait until the end of the design process to talk spare parts, it’s an ongoing discussion between ATS and the customer. “Ideally, we work with the customer to have a full complement of spare parts in place even before the machine is turned on,” Wardell says.
ATS typically does not maintain a warehouse of off-the-shelf parts. Instead, most replacement parts it provides are third-party components. So although the degree of spare-parts management that ATS does for its customers is limited, customers are assisted in developing the means to set up a parts inventory system for themselves, either at their site or at a contract site.
Protection through Future-Proofing
There are two schools of thought when it comes to upgrades and system future-proofing. One approach holds that “if it’s installed and it works, don't touch it and don't break it until you decide to replace it,” Durand says. The other approach sees the machine vision system as a “living, breathing thing that can be incrementally improved.”
Wardell says that ATS’s view of system future-proofing “starts with our approach to system design, which is based on standard assemblies and modules that we know we will be able to reorder for the next 10 years.”
He adds that things become more complicated on the significantly higher-tech portions of a machine vision system where many components have been on the market for only a few years.
To give better support, the company qualifies components during the system design phase. “We could save money if we used the latest and greatest non-industrial solutions,” Wardell says. “But we’ve found over the years that when we source for any project, one of the requirements is the longevity and life cycle of individual components.”
The company develops its ATS SmartVision software in-house, which gives the company greater control over life-cycle issues. “Our software product has been maintained and developed for more than 10 years now,” Wardell says. In practice, systems that were delivered 10 years ago can usually move into the latest software version with little rework required.
At i4 Solutions, Durand takes a component approach to system architecture. “We tend to have an embedded processor with one or more cameras communicating with the processor, and cameras that use a standardized communications protocol. So for future-proofing, if one component becomes obsolete we don't have to throw the whole thing away,” he says. It’s not uncommon for customer requirements to change with a need, say, for greater imaging resolution or a second camera. “These are the things we can do quite cost-effectively,” he says.
“Most of our systems end up getting upgraded in some form over time,” Durand continues. One or more facets may drive those upgrades. The production rate may increase. Or, if a customer has an OCV application, the size of the font may change, thus mandating greater resolution for the camera.
Of particular value, he says, is ensuring that components are based on one of the AIA standards, USB3 or GigE Vision.
“One example is we had Basler FireWire cameras installed, and after 12 years they became obsolete,” Durand explains. “We selected another Basler camera model having the same optical format. It was easy to plug a new camera in to our existing system.”
Wardell agrees that an important facet of future-proofing is ensuring that customers have the ability to rapidly change components when necessary. To better accommodate operating changes, ATS automates system backup. Its ATS Cortex controller has a backup stick that is plugged into the control system to automatically back it up. Once the new part or component is in place, system operating parameters are restored and the production line quickly returns to operation. “Rather than having to reload everything from scratch, it’s all one clean operation,” Wardell says.
“The main thing that drives us at ATS is that the systems run 24/7,” Wardell adds. Those systems never stop, and they require robust results.