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A vision for plant optimisation

28 July 2018

Joanna Mooberry outlines some of the major advances in industrial vision systems that have turned them into crucial components in the connected food factory of the future. 

Whether the requirement is to confirm package integrity or check the content and positioning of labels, today’s vision systems are the primary means of ensuring that only products that meet the required standard leave the food plant. The rapid evolution of software and the push for more connected supply chains has provided the impetus for the development of vision systems that have digital intelligence built in and this has the potential to extend their role far beyond product quality and brand protection.

The technical development of vision systems has seen them grow from performing a function of brand protection to a more encompassing role related to productivity and increasing overall equipment effectiveness (OEE). By providing real-time monitoring of packaging and label application – such as labelers and cappers – vision systems can review any potential issues on the production line, catching errors before they proliferate into the supply chain.

At the heart of any vision system will be the inspection software that drives it. In addition to facilitating ease of set-up and use, this software is increasingly capable of carrying out statistical analysis; providing plant managers with improved visibility of the performance of equipment on the production line.

The software available today makes verification of packaging integrity, labels, codes, fill levels and more as simple and intuitive as possible. The ability to pre-program product packaging and label design criteria enables the modern vision system to inspect multiple types of packages, such as sauce bottles, ice-cream tubs, juice cartons and cans in food applications, as well as cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and numerous other packaging applications.

Touch-screen human-machine interfaces (HMIs) are also becoming more common, enabling operators to quickly review camera configurations and set ups before inspection begins. The interface can be used to control functions such as rejection systems, the timing of the lights, cameras and more. Functions such as help notes and pictures, automated part selections and changeover recipes make switching inspection profiles easier.

Today, multiple inspection criteria can be configured at the touch of a button, including cap skew, lot/code, neck/thread inspection and label position. For oriented product packages, the operator can configure the software to set front and back label inspections, to ensure that nothing is missed.

Joining the dots
While vision inspection has evolved rapidly, the complexities of modern manufacturing and continuing innovations in packaging design mean there are always new challenges to meet. Round containers are one example. It is difficult to capture a complete and accurate picture of a cylindrical surface. Mettler-Toledo has resolved this by introducing a camera setup that creates a seamless image of round labels/packages to ensure inspection from every angle.

Another big challenge is the inspection of inkjet-printed labels and markings. Comprising discrete dots, this is one of the primary methods of applying variable information, such as the expiration date, on food products. However, industrial vision systems have always had difficulty in accurately reading such print, at speed, in high-throughput production environments. Vibrations on production lines and uneven print surfaces can make this type of print distorted and difficult to read. Mettler-Toledo has recently developed vision inspection software to compensate for distortions, making checks on dot matrix information more accurate.

The CIVCore Dot Print Tool achieves its accuracy by combining several key capabilities. Firstly, the system is configured to detect characters in a range of sizes and can be programmed to check dates, date ranges, and text sequences. It can cope with variable surfaces and is optimised, via its programming, to inspect a variety of materials that may have convex, concave, rough or uneven surfaces. The Dot Print Tool also features automatic orientation detection, so it can read the inkjet print whether or not it is presented the right way up. A final guarantee of accuracy is the software’s ability to detect each individual character string. This is particularly important when characters may be touching, or blurred due to print quality.

Of course, innovations like the Dot Matrix Tool cannot be applied at the expense of production so the software has multi-line reading capabilities that allow it to quickly process images and keep up with rapid production speeds. This means that packagers will be able to automatically reject any misprints within the manufacturing facility and rework the products onsite, eliminating any recalls that might otherwise have occurred.

Future direction
Industry 4.0 and the unstoppable rise of automation is re-defining production processes across industry. The key for food manufacturers is to specify future-proofed systems that can be readily adapted to meet changing needs. Ultimately, it’s about creating more connected, data-driven production plants which are lean and efficient.

It is clear that vision systems, equipped with the right software can provide a crucial building block for the implementation of Industry 4.0 principles and strategies. The machines are modular and scalable, allowing for the simple addition of extra cameras and lights after installation. This means food manufacturers can swiftly and easily alter their production processes to take account of new ways of working.

The machines also come with connectivity built-in. For example, within the CIVCore software platform is a simplified Remote Part Change process, delivered via a TCP/IP, Ethernet IP or OPC-UA option, that allows customers to use a standard Windows socket connection to remotely change a selected part.

Also, when several machines from different vendors are incorporated into an automated production line, it has been difficult to integrate them all to work and communicate together effectively. Incorporating PackML and PackTags within proprietary software such as CIVCore simplifies the integration of automated machines, delivering better supply chain integration, shorter project and system deployment cycles, and reduced engineering and training costs.

Vision inspection technology has proved itself as a highly effective tool in supporting quality, safety and brand reputation in manufacturing. The software evolution means that these systems are now capable of performing critical quality and integrity checks, and also assimilating data and analysing it to add value through production optimisation.

Joanna Mooberry is a product inspection specialist at Mettler-Toledo.

A downloadable infographic about vision inspection and productivity can be downloaded from:

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