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Optimising nut sorting efficiency

22 February 2024

Hosting 50 pairs of Trio Selective Compliance Assembly Robot Arm (SCARA) robots, a new nut sorting conveyor at a large processing facility in the US is able to handle a much greater throughput than a traditional manual line.

Operating 24/7, the robot system has presented double digit percentage growth in productivity and is freeing up the need for tens of workers across several rotating shift patterns.

At the plant, baked or shelled nuts are fed onto a conveyor, where operatives positioned along the line look for, and then remove, sub-quality produce. The conveyor is constantly moving for relatively long periods, while workers have to focus their eyes and repeatedly pick defective nuts. While the new SCARA conveyor is being used in addition to the existing manual lines and has increased capacity at the facility, in the future, replacing the manual lines with SCARA automation will enable workforce redeployment into less physically taxing tasks.

Automating nut processing is also improving product quality and consistency when compared to traditional sorting. With the manual approach, defining a defective item can be subjective from person to person. Automating the sorting line required seamless integration combined with high robotic motion coordination. First, the robot has to spot a defective nut, then it has to be able to quickly pick it with the necessary dexterity to grip and hold very small, non-uniform items. 

On the conveyor line, each SCARA robot pair connects to a camera vision system that plots precise coordinates to sub-millimetre accuracy. The vision system identifies defective nuts, and the robot pair then guides their gripper to pick and remove the unwanted produce. 

Responsible for coordinating each of the 50 robot pairs, as well as the camera vision system, is a single Trio Flex-X Nano motion controller which also controls the motion of the grippers. XYZ-Theta axis control of the grippers gives three-dimensional motion, plus rotation, and also controls their opening/closing movement. 

The Trio controller features deterministic, real-time EtherCAT communications down to 125µsec, with an execution benchmark of 125 lines/ms. 

While the controllers coordinate the motion of each tandem of SCARAs, they also need to coordinate with the motion of the conveyor. Integration with the plant’s existing control architecture means that the controllers connect to the hierarchy via Modbus. The automated line is also enabling IoT efficiency gains through real-time data management, combined with remote monitoring.

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