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  • Writer's pictureJames Figy

High-Speed Vision Sorting Technology Records Rapid Improvement with EtherCAT

VMek enhances networking hardware for color sorting with pluggable EtherCAT I/O modules that reduce costs, equipment footprint and time to market

VMek sorting systems
The Metrix Analytic Lab Color Sorter, one of VMek Sorting Technology’s top hardware solutions, uses two full-color GigE cameras to separate and gather data on seeds.

Kent Lovvorn left his previous job in 2012 with a clear vision: He would work as hard as possible to design and perfect his own high-speed vision systems. “I wanted to specialize in some segment of high-speed machine vision,” says Lovvorn, general manager of VMek™ Sorting Technology in Midlothian, Virginia. Founded in 2014, VMek offers numerous software and hardware solutions for vision sorting. The company’s sorting machines, including the Metrix Analytic Lab Color Sorter™ and Element Analytic Production Color Sorter™, leverage new technologies to meet the needs of customers in the agriculture industry, including the top three seed producers in the U.S.

The Metrix uses two full-color GigE cameras and offers a throughput of 600 seeds per second, while the Element boasts four full-color GigE cameras with a remarkable throughput of 12,000 seeds per second. The ability to provide valuable data on every seed in real-time differentiates VMek systems from other color sorters that only separate parts. “VMek software performs composite analysis using the front and back images of each item. The software isolates each part and mates them together to complete a 360-degree full-part analysis,” Lovvorn says.

Kent Lovvorn of VMek
General Manager Kent Lovvorn founded VMek Sorting Technology in 2014 after deciding to pursue an entrepreneurial endeavor in vision systems in 2012.

This data allows manufacturers and producers to analyze why individual parts were rejected and compare lab results with plant floor realities. They can also use insights to plan for the future, Lovvorn explains: “The seed companies can plan accordingly for the next grow cycle to either enhance or eliminate specific traits.”

Continuous improvement for I/O solutions

Despite the company’s accomplishments, VMek continues to refine its systems to provide more granular data and transmit them easily and securely using OPC UA, all without increasing machine footprint. From the beginning, Lovvorn believed that continuous improvement of these systems would only be possible by partnering with top-tier vendors: “When I started to lay the foundations for VMek, I searched for hardware and software partners that developed quality components the right way. That’s when I found Beckhoff Automation.”

During a presentation on the EtherCAT industrial Ethernet protocol, Lovvorn learned about the network’s ability to use PCs as real-time machine controllers. He decided then that EtherCAT was the best technology to use in his high-speed vision machines, and this led to the decision to standardize on EtherCAT I/O hardware from Beckhoff.

During a 2017 redesign of several systems, VMek set out to further reduce costs and space requirements, but wanted to continue using EtherCAT hardware. This effort did not need to increase reliability, as the first machine that shipped in 2015 has operated continuously without major faults or failures. VMek wanted to enhance its offerings and decrease time to market by reducing the amount of hardware modules and point-to-point wiring.

Pluggable I/Os reduce footprint, costs and assembly time

Through discussions with Beckhoff Regional Sales Engineer Chuck Padvorac, P.E., Lovvorn found a fitting solution: pluggable EJ series EtherCAT I/O terminals. These terminals mount directly to custom-designed PCB boards using predefined JST connectors, and the entire board connects to the larger PC-based system via prefabricated cables or coded plug connectors. Because the boards come essentially prebuilt, this makes series production more efficient and cost effective compared to traditionally wired terminals.

“When I first heard about the EJ series, I knew it was the right direction for us. The core benefits were logical and came down to the ease of use that enables us to build distribution boards with the exact functionality, size, connectors and labeling we need,” explains Lovvorn. “Because the board for each machine is customized for our designs and processes, we can build machines prior to buying the EJ components, which delivers benefits in terms of equipment costs and just-in-time assembly. The EJ series supports easier I/O assembly the first time, with no incorrect wiring, and simplified maintenance over the life of the machine.”

EJ series terminals are roughly half the size of standard EtherCAT Terminals, but they provide the same functionality. Each module offers standard LED lights to display EtherCAT diagnostics on the hardware, and each VMek machine features a window in front of the EJ board for easy access to this information. An EJ1100 EtherCAT Coupler converts the incoming telegrams from Ethernet 100BASE-TX to E-bus signal representation in the EtherCAT system. VMek takes advantage of high-density I/O options with the EJ1809 16-channel digital input and the EJ2889 16-channel digital output. The EJ series can be used in the same system as the EtherCAT Terminal I/O family. For example, VMek connects EJ series I/O to a DIN rail-mounted EL7041 EtherCAT Terminal that enables direct connection to a stepper motor that controls the feed rate for a product currently in development, the Profile 3D Analytic Size Sorter.

This demonstrates how Beckhoff continues to invest in research and development to provide innovative solutions that empower companies to do more, according to Padvorac. “Kent is an exceptionally talented engineer, but maybe more importantly, he is driven to find the best technologies for each project,” he says. “Using the EJ series EtherCAT plug-in modules from Beckhoff, he was able to implement the perfect I/O solution. We are committed to the constant advancement of these technologies, just like Kent is with the VMek vision sorting lineup.”

Sorting technologies advance through key partnerships

Seed sorting in progress
The top seed companies in the U.S. divide acceptable seeds from those that do not meet color or size standards using software and hardware solutions from VMek.

By implementing EJ series EtherCAT I/O modules with standardized PCB boards for each sorting machine, VMek was able to cut time to market significantly. “We estimate that we reduced our equipment assembly time by 50 percent,” Lovvorn says. “We have also minimized service time, if it’s ever needed.” Small adjustments at the hardware level helped VMek cut costs by roughly $700 per I/O segment, and the company reinvested these savings in R&D to continue to enhance its vision sorting machines and software.

Lovvorn has two main goals: to make the best vision sorting software and hardware possible and to collaborate with companies that work to lead in their fields. “In our industry, every company’s sorting technology has to be fast and efficient, but through our innovation and partnerships, we offer more,” Lovvorn says. “As leaders in agribusiness, our customers see our complex sorting algorithms and ability to gather data on every part as indispensable.” Lovvorn had the foresight to value collaboration as he made the leap into entrepreneurship in 2012. As VMek continues to enhance its vision sorting systems to better detect, eject and report for the top seed companies, he does not see this changing.

Want to learn more about reducing wiring with pluggable options? Contact your local Beckhoff sales engineer today.


James Figy is the Senior Content Specialist at Beckhoff Automation LLC.

A version of this article previously appeared in Control Engineering and US Tech.


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