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Country’s Moldmakers Look To Fortify Their Leadership Position

Why do processors keep going to Portugal for molds? Consider this: Moldoplastico, in Oliveira de Azeméis, says it can supply customers with garden furniture molds that reportedly yield nearly 50% shorter cycle times than those of its Taiwanese and Korean competitors.

As a result, Moldoplastico has regular customers from the U.S., Europe, Israel, South Africa, and even the Philippines. “It’s a matter of the metals we use, the cooling channels, and our input into the design,” notes managing director Luis Pinheiro.

Moldoplastico may be one of the bigger and higher-quality moldmakers in Portugal, but its compatriots are not far behind, as a trip sponsored by Icep, the Portuguese Trade Commission, to several suppliers during “Moldes Portugal 2002” made clear. Portuguese moldmakers, big and small, are reinforcing their position as providers of some of the best molds money can buy. They appear confident that, even as they lose some of their cost advantage as salaries approach European norms, they can still produce better value than the competition in Eastern Europe and even Asia.

They are also keen to attract the best young Portuguese talent to secure their position well into the future. During the week-long Moldes Portugal 2002 program, which included a two-day rapid product development (rpd) conference, a brokerage event, and mini-exhibition, Portuguese moldmakers trade association Cefamol brought in around 600 students for an introduction to the industry. The group also has numerous training programs, as well as an initiative, called MarketMolde, which is intended to globally promote the sector as well as develop improved education, human-resources, r&d, marketing, and networking programs.

There are some 300 moldmakers in Portugal, whose sales totaled around $350 million in 2001. Ninety percent of their production is exported. A handful of companies like Moldoplastico command sales of around $10 million each; and one company, Simoldes, also in Oliveira de Azeméis, accounts for over $60 million (it was forecasting $80 million for 2002). Many of them, however, have sales well under $1 million. Therefore, they have modest marketing budgets. It is mostly these companies that rely on Cefamol and Icep, and events like Moldes Portugal 2002, to raise their profile.

At the rpd event and visits to several mold shops, Icep made much play of the presence of a senior tool engineering manager from Boeing’s Sonic Cruiser program. The jet, which will fly at just below the speed of sound, should enter service in 2008. Although discussions regarding molds for the jet’s parts are only in the preliminary stages, Icep is pushing hard to get Portuguese moldmakers in-volved. Plastics already play a substantial role in airplane interiors, but early designs of the Sonic Cruiser call for about 60% of its body to be made of composites.

Small moldmakers in Portugal further benefit from the presence — almost unique to the country — of engineering companies like Tecmolde, in Marinha Grande. Tecmolde sources orders for suites of tools that often reach double-figures, then farms the work out to local moldmakers. Even in Portugal, Tecmolde is special. “There are one or two others like us,” says company president António Santos, “but there are a hundred that try to be.”

Santos says business in 2002 was “too good, especially from the U.S.” Such is the level of activity that, apparently, the company is having to think twice about taking some of the orders it is getting. “Our orders are always for 40 or 50 molds,” he says. “Nissan expects to give us orders for over 500 molds [for parts for its U.S. operation] over the next two years.” Five-hundred molds are approximately what the company normally delivers in a year.

TPV Overmolds To Rigid Polyolefins

DuraGrip?from Ferro subsidiary APA is a thermoplastic vulcanizate designed for overmolding to rigid polyolefinic substrates. The compounds, said to be easy to color, are available in durometers of 40, 50, and 60. Additional grades are expected in the coming months. Target markets include automotive, recreation, tools and appliances, and consumer electronics, with specific applications including personal watercraft, washing machines, and hair dryers, as well as knobs and grips. Advanced Polymer Alloys LLC, 3521 Silverside Rd., Wilmington, DE 19810 www.apainfo.com

PTFE Laminating Press Works At High Temperatures

Technical Marine Products’ new model is designed to laminate fluoropolymers at temperatures up to 735ºF, while offering the advantages of a vacuum system, the firm says. The unit is available up to 2100 tons, with five or more openings and work areas up to 59 by 89 in. Technical Marine Products, 5500 Walworth Ave., Cleveland, OH 44102 www.techmach.com

Low-friction TPV Opens Up Window-seal Performance

NexPrene 1500A LCOF (for low coefficient of friction) Series thermoplastic vulcanizates reportedly boast easier installation, less sliding resistance, and greater dirt resistance than other tpvs. Designed for seals and gaskets for windows and other construction applications, the fully-vulcanized, recyclable compounds reportedly provide tight seals with long-term resistance to compression set and superior uv stability. Available in natural, black, or precolored grades in hardnesses from 40 Shore A to 50 Shore D, the materials meet AAMA-703 weatherseal specifications. Thermoplastic Rubber Systems, 2 Shaker Rd., Shirley, MA 01464 www.trstpe.com

Visa Deadlines Pressing For Show Visitors

Although the initial shock of the Sept. 2001 terror attacks in the U.S. has faded, their effect can still be palpably felt — and seen — by air travelers. Anyone who has flown since then can attest to increased security at U.S. airports. In many cities, conveniences like curbside check-in and obtaining boarding passes at the gate are things of the past.

International travelers may be facing, as well, delays in obtaining visitors’ visas to attend the triennial National Plastics Exposition in Chicago, June 23-27. The Society of the Plastics Industry, the show’s organizer, is concerned that visitors are putting off filing their visa applications until too late. NPE attracts overseas attendees: at NPE 2000, for example, out of 90,100 visitors, roughly 8500 were from countries other than the U.S., Canada, and visa-waiver countries. Nearly 10% of attendees three years ago needed a visa.

The U.S. State Department notes that in response to the attacks, it has been conducting an extensive review of visa-issuing practices. “Visa applications are now subject to a greater degree of scrutiny,” it noted in a statement, advising applicants to expect delays.

“Since the terrorist attacks, the time required for processing visa applications from many parts of the world has increased to three or four months,” says Jordan L. Morgenstern, the SPI’s vp. of trade shows, “and delays may lengthen during the transition period if responsibility for processing visa applications is transferred from the U.S.

State Department to the proposed Department of Homeland Security. We are advising prospective international visitors to start the visa process now, even if they are only considering attending NPE 2003.”

The SPI advises attendees to plan at least four months ahead to obtain visas for entry to the U.S., adding that “…when applying for a U.S. visa, it is imperative to be specific about your business agenda [by] providing a complete itinerary of meetings and locations while in the U.S.”

But many foreign attendees will probably not need to apply for a visa, since 28 countries participate in the U.S. Visa Waiver program. The program allows visitors to enter the country without a visa for 90 days or less, for business or tourism. Requirements for a visa waiver include a valid passport from a country of which the applicant is a citizen, and a round-trip ticket from an airline belonging to the visa-waiver program. A list of the nations participating in the program is available at the State Department’s Web site (www.travel.state.gov/vwp.html).

Outside of countries participating in the visa-waiver program, visitors need to apply for a short-term visa for tourist or business travel; an application can be downloaded from the State Department’s Web site (www.travel.state.gov/DS-0156.pdf). Organizers note that it is important visitors don’t apply for a residency or student visa, since requirements for those are more stringent and time-consuming.

Further complicating the situation, consular services in countries such as Pakistan, Indonesia, and Yemen have been cut back due to ongoing crises there. This is delaying local visa processing, the State Department notes. Visitors from nations the U.S. has designated as state sponsors of terrorism are subject to especially stringent visa requirements, which are listed on the State Department’s Web site (www.travel.state.gov/section306.html).

The SPI has made a variety of resources available to ease the visa application process, including an information page on the visa situation (www.npe.org/visa) and a list of contacts for the national delegation of various countries (www.npe.org/international/contacts.asp).

It is also offering to supply attendees official Letters of Invitation to supplement their visa applications; the letters can be requested at registration and be sent within several weeks.

NPE is roughly six months away, and since visa applications may take four months to process, the imperative for international visitors and non-U.S. citizens is clear: Apply for your visas now.

Pack Expo Offerings Reinforce Brand Identity And Value

Products on display at Pack Expo spanned a range of packaging needs. Some of the most important developments were focused on reinforcing brand identity and product differentiation. The show, Nov. 3-7 in Chicago, highlighted these and other advances that promoted the innovation and diversity of plastics packaging.

Despite the economic slowdown in most parts of the world, plastics packaging continues to turn in solid gains. According to figures presented at Pack Expo by consultant Ernst & Young, plastics accounted for $116 billion of the $314 billion spent on packaging materials in 2001, trailing only paper and board at $133 billion. (In third and fourth place were metal, at $40 billion, and glass, at $25 billion.) Consumer markets made up 70% of demand, with food packaging accounting for $145 billion and beverages $75 billion.

The global market for all packaging in 2001 was valued at $417 billion by Ernst & Young, of which Europe accounted for $129 billion; North America for $116 billion; and Japan $61 billion. In per-capita spending on packaging, Japan was $500; North America $350; and Europe $176. These figures bode well for the future of packaging demand in developing regions. In Asia, for example, per-capita spending on packaging is only $19; in Africa and the Middle East, it’s $29; and in Latin America, it’s $43.

Markets like North America, Western Europe, and Japan are viewed as mature in terms of demand, though gro-wth, of course, will be from an already high base. With competition for packaging keen in these areas, it’s little wonder that many developments at Pack Expo focused on pro-duct differentiation. Notable among these developments were materials and packages in-tended to help food companies and even retailers reinforce brand identity and product value through the use of innovative packaging.

Voridian Co., for example, touted its VersaTray crystallized polyethylene terephthalate (cpet) resin for dual-ovenable food packaging. The material withstands a temperature range of –40 to 400°F. It has been available in North America, Europe, South America, and Asia-Pacific since the mid-1990s, but Voridian, a division of Eastman Chemical Co. in Kingsport, tn, has started promoting the VersaTray name to consumers in North America. Jeffrey G. Best, business market manager for the polymers business group, said the objective is to make shoppers aware of the brand name to drive sales of VersaTray-packaged food.

Best said Voridian seeks to co-brand the thermoformed package with food companies or retailers or both. By promoting the brand through ads, in-store signage, and point-of-purchase displays, Voridian wants consumers to equate food in the cpet package with quality, convenience, and value.

Consumer awareness is critical, Best said, because studies show that shoppers tend to spend longer in frozen and refrigerated food sections of stores than in other areas. Moreover, 75% of consumers who pick up food packages to examine the contents or read the labels buy the product.

The benefit for retailers is not only the potential for increased sales, but sales of higher-priced products since the value equation can include premium pricing. Best said research found consumers will pay up to 41¢ more per tray for properties like those of VersaTray.

A similar effort is underway by Cargill Dow, the Minnetonka, mn, supplier of NatureWorks, a polylactic acid resin made from corn and other plants. Michael O’Brien, communications leader, says the company is meeting with retailers and product makers to get them to ask for packaging from converters that’s fabricated with the resin.

Using packaging thermoformed of NatureWorks is a way for a store or oem to burnish its image by promoting environmental awareness and influencing consumers to buy its products.

NatureWorks has been specified for fresh food and pasta containers by IPER, a 21-store chain based in northern Italy. O’Brien said IPER promotes its care in selecting the best foods for customers, so NatureWorks containers and their “green” image was a seamless addition to its advertising message. The stores promote the availability of the packages with banners and brochures at every entrance. “Retailers can take a product and differentiate it [with NatureWorks packaging],” O’Brien said. “This is a way to get consumers’ attention.”

Electronics giant Sony has specified NatureWorks for blisterpacks for its Walkman portable stereos. The packages have been on retail shelves in Japan since last year and will be in the U.S. early in 2003. “Sony is really applying our material to different applications,” O’Brien remarked.

Cargill Dow helps retailers promote NatureWorks packaging on a case-by-case basis. O’Brien said a formal program may be in place early this year. Most interest has come from outside the U.S., but he noted that the same regulatory and public concerns regarding eco-friendly packaging are coming to America. A year ago, he said, no U.S. retailers wanted to discuss the resin. Now, many are interested.

[Cargill Dow recently announced a new initiative with packaging suppliers Amprica SpA, of Italy, and Wei Mon Industry, Taipei, to develop packaging fabricated from Nature-Works pla resin; see Plastiscope.]

Two grades are available for thermoforming; one is opaque and one is clear. There are also two grades for cast film. O’Brien said that for thermoforming, the material is similar to pet in shrink rate. Material change is relatively easy — NatureWorks runs well on thermoformers configured for polystyrene — but the resin needs drying.

The film grades won’t run on oriented polypropylene lines, since pp stretch ratios are more than pla can take, but they can be used on opet and ops lines.

Biodegradable polymers were featured on many stands at Pack Expo. Cortec Corp., St. Paul, mn, a chemicals company specializing in corrosion-resistance products, unveiled Eco Film, for bags and corrosion protection, which is derived from soybeans. The material has no starch and reportedly degrades in about six weeks to CO2 and water. The company claims the film is twice as strong as ldpe and lldpe. It costs twice as much but can be downgaged, bringing the premium per bag to about 20 to 30% more than pe, though this will decline as volume increases. Cortec forecasted sales of just under 10 million lb of film last year.

DuPont showed Biomax biodegradable polymers for food-service and fast-food use. Based on a modified polyester described as “hydro-biodegradable,” the polymer is designed to break down in composting where it is digested by microbes in the compost.

Also featured by the company was an innovative device for keeping bottled beverages cold — the label. Cool2Go Wrap is a laminated film that’s claimed to keep beverages cold twice as long as usual on hot days, generally up to 30 min. Its thermal insulation also keeps hot beverages hot. The product is fabricated by laminating a layer of DuPont’s Thermolite Active insulation between layers of Melinex pet film from DuPont Teijin Films. On samples displayed at the show, the label covered about two-thirds of a 20-oz plastics bottle.

Toray Plastics (America), meanwhile, launched three products with a range of benefits for packagers. Torayfan PCF is a 45-gage, metallized, oriented pp film designed to replace foil in barrier laminations. Torayfan PC-2 is a 45-gage opp film with good cold-seal properties that resists delamination during package opening and provides high oxygen and moisture barrier. LumBrite U6E is a pet grade for holographic applications.

Grade PCF is a drop-in replacement for foil. It can be used with multilayer extrusion or adhesive laminations. Properties include moisture and oxygen barrier, high puncture and flex-crack resistance, and a higher yield versus foil. Toray says the material has metal-detection capability, and is compatible with conventional packaging equipment.

Grade PC-2 can be used in extrusion, adhesive, and cold-seal applications. Though it has low metal content compared with many competitive films, its metal adhesion is claimed to be twice that of most other films. It is especially suitable for pouch applications.

The U6E holographic film is designed for fast production and economy. It has a proprietary coating that permits direct embossing. The result is a highly esthetic material that can be used in diverse film-to-board and other laminated packaging.

In non-food packaging, Dow Chemical commercialized a ps-based extruded microcellular foam with extremely high thermal insulation properties. Called Instill, the material is for use as the core in vacuum insulation panels (vip), a specialized, high-value area of thermal insulation.

Instill can maintain a product at temperatures between 2 and 8°C for 100 h with no need for extra cooling. This is a major benefit in the transport of sensitive pharmaceuticals and human organs. This capability, coupled with its small size and light weight, makes shipment of temperature-sensitive products by air easier and more economical.

The foam is also seen to have use as refrigerator insulation in countries like Japan, where tight living space in cities creates a need for smaller appliances.

Dow extrudes the foam as a closed-cell slab 1 to 2 in thick. A post-extrusion treatment breaks open the cells. The open-cell structure means a higher vacuum can be applied. Instill has R values of 25 to 30 depending on vacuum applied — about 25% better than vip based on polyurethane foam or silica powder.

Valve Makes Resin Flow Child’s Play At Little Tikes

It is said that every dark cloud has a silver lining. The managers at Little Tikes Commercial Play Systems Inc., a rotational molder of playground sets, might agree. A fire four years ago at the company’s Farmington, mo, plant disrupted production, but provided an opportunity to upgrade the facility’s design and operation. In one area especially, materials-handling, Little Tikes revamped and improved its resin-coloring and -feeding system.

A key component of the system is the multiport Wye Line Diverter from Salina Vortex Corp., Salina, ks. This is a pneumatic valve assembly that channels pigmented polyethylene via plc-controlled sliding-blade diverter valves, from two sources to 12 silos on the plant floor for storage prior to molding.

“We were looking for ease of use and low maintenance. This diverter valve achieves that,” says William Rodgers, Little Tikes manufacturing engineer. Since its installation in 1998, Rodgers says that the MultiPort Diverter hasn’t yet required maintenance or cleaning, even though it conveys some 6 million lb of lldpe every year. (Rodgers was interviewed in late October.)

The valve assembly replaced a hose manifold station that required the manual switching and connection of flexible hoses to inlet and outlet pipes. The process was labor-intensive, open to error, and created the potential for product contamination, says Kevin Peterson, marketing manager at Salina Vortex. The hose manifold was also a potential safety hazard, since an improperly connected coupling could make a hose come loose under pneumatic pressure, creating the risk of injury as well as material spillage. According to Rodgers, there has been no contamination of resin or mechanical failure since the diverter valve assembly was installed.

The Wye Line Diverter comes in three basic configurations: 2-way, 3-way, and 4-way valves. The MultiPort in use at Little Tikes incorporates five Wye Line Diverter valves in different configurations — one 2-way valve; one 3-way valve; and three 4-way valves.

The resin-contact material for this assembly is aluminum. Salina Vortex can also supply contact metal in stainless steel or carbon steel, depending on application needs.

The plc regulates valve sequencing to determine where resin will flow. Little Tikes uses 23 pigments with the lldpe it rotomolds, though Rodgers says that less than half that number — generally 8 to 10 colors — are used on a regular basis.

Wye Line Diverter valves are lighter than cast iron versions. Con-ventional flapper-style diverter valves or rotating-tunnel diverter valves incorporate elastomeric seals, which can be eroded by material abrasion. The sliding orifice blade is designed to resist abrasion. It is also said to provide positive sealing in both vacuum and pressure-conveying applications.

One benefit of the installation at Little Tikes, which is a division of oem Newell Rubbermaid Co., is it freed up floor space occupied by the hose manifold station. Little Tykes and Salina Vortex did this by turning the support frame for the MultiPort Diverter upside down and installing the unit on the ceiling.

One factor that helped close the sale was a visit to Little Tikes by Salina Vortex’s local rep, Dynamic Bulk Systems of Fenton, mo, with the Salina Vortex Mobile Display Unit. This is a truck that contains samples of the company’s materials-handling products. Prospective buyers can walk through the displays, examine each, and get technical advice on the spot regarding installation and use.

Long Runs And Long Relationships Buoy Molder

Boating on the old canals of northwest England occupies a lot of the leisure time of Peter Lang, founder of U.K. firm Hi-Tech Plastics, in Blackburn. Originally built as commercial thoroughfares, the canals now are used mainly for recreation, but Lang’s canal boating provided an unexpected business benefit.

Lang retired from Hi-Tech three years ago when he sold his partial stake to his son, Dennis, who now is the sole owner. But he still visits the plant regularly, and even used spare space there to build a 57-ft diesel narrowboat in 2001. While navigating the boat on a canal in Manchester this summer, he spotted an injection press on the grounds of a factory due for relocation. It was a 550-tonne Oima unit that was only a few years old and available for an attractive price.

Hi-Tech, which had 21 presses ranging from 25 to 500 tonnes, had been thinking of purchasing a larger unit. Although the firm, for 15 years, had bought new Arburg machines, it couldn’t pass up the great deal on the used press.

The company typically reinvests 60 to 70% of profits in the business, notes Dennis Lang, to foster continuing growth. Hi-Tech’s sales in 2002 should exceed, by at least 10%, the about-£2-million turnover of 2001, which was up by over £400,000 from the year before. Hi-Tech now has 34 employees, eight more than two years ago, and runs 24/5 with two 12-h shifts on weekends.

Peter started the business in 1984 with a small, used Austin-Allen plunger press that he ran in his garden shed, making end-caps for metal tubes. After his neighbors complained about the noise, he leased some space in an old factory, and 18 months later had four presses and the need for more room. So, Hi-Tech had a new plant built in nearby Mill Hill, and then expanded as the firm added more machines.

In 1991, with nine presses and again running out of space, Hi-Tech relocated to a new 11,000-ft2 building in Blackburn, which was expanded by 13,000 ft2 in 1999. It includes a cleanroom with seven machines. The plant can accommodate at least a half-dozen more presses, including another in the cleanroom, says Dennis. The firm has just installed its first part pickers, on two units. It is eyeing more robotics and water injection technology.

At Mill Hill, Hi-Tech started to mold technical parts, beginning with asthma-inhaler components, which it still makes. The firm now focuses on small (under 200 g), high-volume (up to 1 million pieces per week) technical parts not requiring secondary operations and made in long runs. However, it does produce larger parts and does some ultrasonic welding. Business is split almost equally among office furniture, pharmaceutical, do-it-yourself, and automotive markets. Many customers have relied on the molder for over a decade.

All customers are in the U.K., except for one in the U.S. that asked Hi-Tech to supply the same part it made for a U.K. affiliate. New business often develops by word of mouth, notes Dennis. Hi-Tech competes successfully even against molders in Eastern Europe and the Far East, he adds.

One major advantage, he notes, is that the firm can leverage its proximity to customers and long-term relationships with many of them, to get involved early in projects, which saves time and forestalls potential production problems. Hi-Tech makes all of its tooling, and its tooling expertise and fully-equipped toolroom are big strengths, adds Dennis, who trained as a toolmaker, in ensuring short lead times, efficient molding, and quick tool repairs.

For instance, in a recent project for a tensioner/insulator for electrical fencing, the company provided input on a number of technical issues, including selection of material, wall thickness and gating, and then produced fully-hardened tooling in four weeks.

Dennis, who also is a canal boater, sees a buoyant future for Hi-Tech.

New firm will import large molds into U.K.

Following the collapse of Penton Tools Ltd., High Wycombe, England, which was one of the few companies left in the country capable of making large injection molds, a new firm has been established to deliver such tools to U.K. processors.

Springer Rapid Industries, Coventry, England, which starts operation this month, will import molds from 5 to 185 tonnes, produced by six undisclosed German suppliers. “We’ll fill the gap in the big-[mold] market,” says Gordon Styles, one of the firm’s principals.

Styles, a U.K. entrepreneur (two years ago, he sold his rapid prototyping company to Arrk Product Development Group), failed in a last-minute rescue bid for Penton in early October. “There was no need for it to go the way it did.”

Styles notes that only one U.K. toolmaker now has the facilities and equipment to make molds over 14 tonnes. Of the seven large U.K. toolmakers that have disappeared in the last few years, he remarks that management gaffes forced the closures. “None of them went bust for lack of work,” he observes.

In the U.K., Penton Tools’ capability in large molds was matched only by Tooling Products, in Langrish. It was shuttered several months ago by The Weir Group, Glasgow, Scotland, and its assets were subsequently acquired by moldmaking giant Sermo Industries, Montaigu, France. The entity is now operating as Sermo UK Ltd., at reduced staff and manufacturing levels.

Despite reports of mold orders leaving for Asia and Eastern Europe, Styles says there is still plenty of business in the U.K. for large toolmakers, in white goods and automotive, among others. He says Springer Rapid already has work lined up.

Vision-Guided Robots Tighten Tolerances

adil shafi, president of robot user-interface software developer Shafi Inc., says users will benefit greatly from robot-vision systems. “What they get is consistency over manual [processes],” says Shafi, who cites the case of a major automotive lighting supplier that managed to reduce gate-flash tolerances to within 0.2 mm. The primary benefits of vision-equipped robots include labor savings, throughput consistency, reduction of workplace injuries, flexibility, and alleviation of retooling.

“You can install [a robot] with vision for not that much more,” says Joseph Portelli, plastics program manager for Fanuc Robots, Rochester Hills, mi. Prices have come down dramatically since the early days of vision-guided robots.

Improved usability is an important factor in encouraging the adoption of vision-guided robots. “Most of the [recent] development has been towards ease of use,” says Portelli. “Vision systems have been notoriously difficult to use.”

“Ease of use to an engineer is very different from ease of use to a non-technical person,” Shafi says. “Ease of use has to do with how much support [is needed] — how many support calls come from a workcell, how many times technicians have to be sent out.”

Over and above wizards for specific tasks, Shafi says an essential component of usability is the availability and quality of diagnostic tools. Good, easily navigable diagnostic tools can make machine operation much simpler. “Often, the information is there,” Shafi says. “It’s just [hard] to find.

“We don’t expect plants to raise their level of expertise,” Shafi notes, since that would make the robotic system more expensive to the processor.

With Shafi’s Reliabot software, the Cognex vision system by Cognex Corp., Natick, ma, obtains a picture from one or more cameras. Then, the software finds and recognizes objects and features in each picture, and converts the 2-D coordinates of each object or feature into 3-D robot coordinates and orientation. A 3-D pick offset is applied, which allows objects to be picked up off-center, and the final 3-D robot coordinates and orientation are passed to the robot over a serial or Ethernet line. Then, the robot moves to the object and performs the desired operation. The Reliabot software is written to perform all of these procedures automatically, except for the application-specific robot action on the object.

Three-dimensionality is possible by taking pictures from different angles with a single arm-mounted camera. “If the camera is stationary, [the software] does more math” to get a 3-D image, Shafi explains. With a third camera on a multicamera 3-D vision system, the third, redundant camera verifies the integrity of the system, and becomes an instant backup in case one of the cameras fails. When data from one camera are not available, the system automatically uses data from the third camera.

Refinements to systems include improvements to both 3-D robot guidance software and color-sensing hardware. “In 2-D you get fields of view, but in 3-D you have cubes of view,” Shafi explains. “A lot of times you can do stereo [imaging],” he continues, but the precision can be problematic. Refinements to the software have raised precision.

The firm says the software gives any networkable robot the ability to use vision feedback, and it features an interface operators can learn in a few minutes. Applications include racking, sorting, bin-picking, and fixture elimination. Operators can quickly perform 3-D calibration with step-by-step wizards, and the firm says the software’s support for a third camera increases the reliability of results.

The firm says that it has worked with controllers from Nachi, Kawasaki, Kuka, Staubli, ABB, Adept, Panasonic, Kiefel, and Fanuc allowing a vision system to be plugged in with existing robots. The software also serves as a simplified interface to a Cognex MVS-8100, In-Sight, or Check-point vision system.

Fanuc Robotics’ vision-guided robotics system, Visloc, is a pc-based vision package used for part location and orientation. It provides 2-D and 3-D robotic guidance tools for material-handling applications. The company says the system’s graphical environment simplifies integration of the vision system, since visual tools handle camera calibration, part handling, and operation. Applications include machine loading and unloading, material-handling, packaging, assembly, depalletizing, and measurement. Visloc is integrated into the robot controller.

Meanwhile, Vistrac is a vision and line-tracking package that the firm says requires no programming to set up and operate.

Recently, the firm upgraded its Vistrac variant of Visloc, which adds tools for vision-coordinated line-tracking. “Line-tracking is nothing new,” says Portelli, but this upgrade allows for circular line tracking. For example, parts could fall on a non-linear conveyor belt revolving around the robot. “As long as the part is stationary on the belt, the robot will remember where the part is,” Portelli explains.

Vision systems add a lot of flexibility to line-tracking systems, says Portelli. “With vision you can do a lot more.” One example is the use of the robot to sort parts by color or appearance. This is possible because the robot can easily see the different parts.

Numerous variables can adversely affect robot vision — from variation in part color and specification, to changes in ambient light. Even a cloudy day or a passing shadow can throw off finicky vision systems. “Vision systems live or die by lighting [conditions],” says Portelli. New vision systems can better accommodate poor lighting. “They can accept a wider range of parts,” says Portelli, and they work even if the image is blurry or the part is rotated.

Portelli claims that improvements to Fanuc’s vision system have dramatically eased robot setup. “[An experienced technician] can literally get a robot to track a part…within about 15 minutes,” he says.

One example is the crucial calibration step at installation, although calibration needs to be done only when the robot or camera is moved. “Calibration is tricky,” notes Portelli. “Now we have calibration wizards,” which make the process simpler, he adds. Shifting to pc-based controls has also benefitted usability. “That made everything easier,” Portelli says. New data-logging tools allow users to create a library of images, which aids servicing. Another new ease-of-use feature is the addition of software wizards to automate setup of inspection and measurement. One tool, for example, puts an image of the part and a caliper onscreen, allowing processors to quickly measure parts.

Since the firm’s vision system is completely integrated, Portelli notes that processors don’t have to worry about maintaining separate software packages. “Everything is done in the robot software,” says Portelli. “You only have to work with one set of software.”

In February 2002, Braintech released its first commercialized version of eVisionFactory (eVF), a software environment for developing vision-guided robotics. Braintech has strategic relationships with robot supplier ABB Flexible Automation, and Marubeni Corp., Osaka, Japan.

The software contains the firm’s Single-Camera 3D (SC3D) technology, which allows the robot to see parts in three dimensions with the use of a single camera. “The importance of eVF and SC3D is profound,” says Owen Jones, ceo and director. “What we’ve brought to the market is the next-generation application for multiplanar, rigid-parts handling and assembly.”

Braintech recently released a multicamera 3-D technology (MC3D) for development of vision-guided robotic applications. The system enables guidance of robots in applications involving large parts or objects with a mixture of visual landmark features. For example, the system can be used for guidance of industrial robots to automotive body panels and other parts to perform secondary processes and assembly.

Babak Habibi, Braintech’s president, says the development expands the firm’s products for the automotive sector and pushes the company further toward its goal of biologically-inspired multifunctional robotics.

“With increases in usability, accuracy, and value, vision-guided robots are becoming more attractive,” says Portelli.