Drives and Controls Magazine
Wireless power and data is ‘quantum leap’ for production lines
Published:  03 December, 2021

The German automation giant Beckhoff claims to have achieved a “quantum leap” in production line flexibility by developing a technology that transmits power and data wirelessly to and from “movers” on its the XTS production transport system. It says that development will open up many new possibilities such as the ability to handle, process, measure and weigh items on the movers.

The development, called NCT (No Cable Technology), turns each mover into a mobile handling and processing station. For the first time, it will be possible to process products and check their quality on a mover while a process is running.

According to Beckhoff’s managing director, Hans Beckhoff, while the original XTS transport system, launched almost ten years ago, was “a mechanical revolution”, the new enhanced version is “an automation revolution”.

Motor modules on board the carriers can be used to drive equipment such as grippers, or to rotate items to allow labels to be added or checked, for example, or liquids to be mixed in containers. Alternatively, products can be heated or cooled as they move along a production line. Another possibility is to use magnets or vacuum suction cups to pick up, transfer and deposit products. Yet another option is to power a display onboard a mover to show whether the item it is carrying has passed or failed tests.

In some applications, on-board grippers could turn the XTS system in to a flexible multi-handling system that could replace much larger pick-and-place installations based on delta robots.

The inductive power transfer technology can deliver up to 75W (peak) to the mover. The continuous capacity is 35W. Data can be updated every 250µs – or 4,000 times per second.

Beckhoff is already suggesting many potential applications for the technology including:
• performing inline measurements;
• aligning workpiece holders to allow processes such as drilling to be performed on products;
• positioning cartons;
• dividing and reuniting product flows by transferring items between movers;
• sorting products using pushers onboard the movers;
• aligning products in X, Y and Z directions, allowing them to be synchronised with external processes;
• operating tool changers;
• sorting product sizes;
• weighing products for controlled filling processes;
• checking for the presence of items;
• monitoring the condition of products and mover attachments;
• functional testing of items such as electronic components;
• using holding brakes to prevent damage caused by unexpected power failures;
• identifying movers and products for tracking purposes;
• controlling printheads on the mover to mark items; and
• storing and reading out information on products, such as configuration settings or production data.

The control of the mover hardware is implemented using Beckhoff’s TwinCat control system. TwinCat’s centralised software approach simplifies synchronisation with external processing stations. All TwinCat functions are available for implementing projects easily.

Two examples of the communicating movers in use, performing weighing and gripper functions

Using the new technology, movers will become an active part of the manufacturing process, acting as mobile processing stations. They can, for example, align products using rotary movements, screw on bottle caps, or position cartons. The time usually required to feed and remove items for processing is eliminated and product flows no longer needs to be interrupted. This will boost machine efficiencies and outputs, says Beckhoff.

The real-time data communications capabilities, in conjunction with the EtherCat functions, can be used to synchronise system-wide events with microsecond precision, allowing specific events to be triggered at exact positions. According to Beckhoff, this will open up new possibilities in terms of product handling, machining and measuring, in parallel with product transport, as well as adapting machines rapidly for changing production requirements.

Having a power supply onboard the movers will allow the temperature of products to be controlled during transport. Measurements can also be carried out, not only inline during production, but also in parallel with processing stations or while moving.

In process applications, controlled dosing can be carried out, for example, with load cells recording product weights, and allowing actual fill quantities to be compared with target values in real time. Any abnormalities can be detected early. A filling station with a suddenly reduced flow rate can be spotted immediately. The on-the-fly quality assurance capabilities will eliminate additional process steps, allowing products to remain on a mover throughout the production process, boosting machine efficiencies.

Production data or system configurations can be stored in a memory, to help identify movers, tools and products. The movers can also monitor the condition of onboard tools.

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In process applications, the NCT technology can be used to mix, heat or cool fluids