ProSpection Solutions uses EtherCAT and PC-based control technology from Beckhoff to optimize Low-Density Foreign Material Inspection System
The transition from machine distributor to award-winning machine builder OEM likely seems like a long-term process. ProSpection Solutions, however, did just that in two years. Based in Kearney, Missouri, ProSpection Solutions specializes in automating product and packaging inspection for meat, dairy and other foods to ensure product safety and quality. In 2017, as the company began to shift to machine building, one of the first products its engineering team designed was the IP69K-rated Low-Density Foreign Material Detection and Removal System. At Process Expo 2019, the machine won the Innovation Showcase Award in the Meat, Poultry and Seafood category. This major honor reinforced the company’s new direction and its selection of control technologies to automate the machine, including EtherCAT and PC-based control.
“The Foreign Material Inspection system allows our customers to detect and remove foreign objects from their product stream with a significantly higher degree of consistency, accuracy and at a much higher rate than other inspection methods,” says Jeff Youngs, President and CEO of ProSpection. “This system has become Prospection’s flagship product line, drawing attention from the largest CPG manufacturers in the food industry. The attention drawn to the Foreign Material Inspection System has also helped us grow our other product lines.” The company also offers inspection systems for roll-stock, block and chub, as well as check-weighing solutions.
Close inspection of automation technologies
The Foreign Material Inspection System uses multiple camera angles to scan and inspect the entire surface of beef, pork, poultry, pet foods, shredded cheese, pasta and other prepared foods. The machine can detect a wide range of contaminants, including hard and soft plastics, personal protective equipment (PPE) and many items commonly found in production plants. Some of those frequently detected items include broken conveyor belting, plastic liners, broken totes, gloves, hairnets, frocks, earplugs and labels as well as colored cardboard and wood. The machine then automatically ejects any tainted product to protect the supply chain.
Perhaps most importantly, it does not have to flip the product to inspect both sides and requires a much smaller footprint than competing systems, according to Kyle Knudsen, Vice President of Technology: “A series of conveyors or a single spreader conveyor arranges the product into a consistent layer. During a transfer between two of our conveyors, cameras scan and inspect product from the top and bottom simultaneously. A retractable nose conveyor then ejects bad product onto a conveyor for rework or disposal.”
Designing and implementing the Foreign Material Inspection System presented several challenges for ProSpection. The system needed to provide a higher throughput, require a smaller footprint and have a higher degree of reliability than competing machines. ProSpection’s proprietary vision inspection software also needed to communicate in real time with the machine controller to allow for immediate removal of contaminants from the production line. To meet these requirements, ProSpection implemented EtherCAT and PC-based control technologies from Beckhoff Automation. This offered an intuitive engineering environment in addition to being robust, comprehensive and deterministic.
Stable control increases inspection reliability
ProSpection began working with the local Beckhoff team – Applications Engineer Marc Wilkinson and Regional Sales Engineers Brian McKee and Brandon Snell – on the design and programming of the Foreign Material Inspection System in summer 2017.
The solution features a CX5140 Embedded PC running TwinCAT 3 automation software to control the machine. ProSpection’s proprietary vision software operates on a standalone computer and communicates to the CX5140 in real time via the Automation Device Specification (ADS) protocol in TwinCAT. Knudsen believes the DIN-rail-mounted controller, with a quad-core Intel Atom® processor and 4 GB of RAM, offers ultimate stability and boosts system reliability. In addition, a stainless steel Beckhoff CP3918 Control Panel provides a 19-inch touchscreen with multi-touch functionality for advanced HMI concepts.
As an end-to-end engineering and runtime platform, TwinCAT offers the PLC and motion control for the conveyor systems. At the time, however, the company’s engineering team had limited programming resources since it had just transitioned to building machines. Knudsen sees the support they received from the Beckhoff team, and Wilkinson in particular, as critical to the system’s success: “Marc essentially programmed all of the machine control for us when we got started. Marc integrated the communications to our vision software using ADS, and he made the base code very easy to understand and modify for our semi-standard systems.”
Now, ProSpection completes its own PLC programming. Knudsen, who has a background in computer science, found the TwinCAT 3 platform easy to acclimate to, as it supports programming in the object-oriented extensions of IEC 61131-3, predefined and custom function blocks and Visual Studio® standards. “Most of my training is in C++, so moving to Structured Text in TwinCAT 3 was an easy transition,” he adds. “Beyond the support from the local team, training at Beckhoff USA headquarters in Savage, Minnesota, definitely helped me become more knowledgeable.”
EtherCAT and integrated safety increase performance
The EtherCAT industrial Ethernet system and motion control solutions from Beckhoff provided additional advantages. EtherCAT delivered real-time communication with free selection of topology. “ProSpection also appreciated that Beckhoff offers EtherCAT couplers and gateways to more than 30 prominent communication protocols,” McKee says. “As the company expands in the marketplace, the ability to communicate easily to other fieldbuses, like EtherNet/IP or PROFINET, on equipment upstream and downstream will be essential.” The Foreign Material Inspection system uses several EL series EtherCAT I/O Terminals from Beckhoff. The space-saving, IP20 modules include standard input/output, lighting control for the cameras and ultra-compact drive technology via EL7047 stepper motor terminals.
The ProSpection machine uses the strengths of EtherCAT and TwinCAT to optimize safety and motion control. TwinSAFE technology directly incorporates functional safety capabilities, such as STO, SS1 and more, into the same TwinCAT engineering environment with communication over the standard EtherCAT network using a “black channel” approach. Open PC-based automation from Beckhoff also simplifies programming and control for the third-party conveyors, the retractable nose that diverts rejected products and linear actuators for camera positioning. “The flexibility that EtherCAT provides has been critical to the machine’s success,” Knudsen says.
A shared vision of innovation leads to success
The Foreign Material Inspection System offers ProSpection Solutions customers a high-throughput machine with more transparent results. With fast communication from the inspection software to the motion components over EtherCAT, the system can handle 10,000-25,000 pounds of product per hour with high accuracy. This rate is three to five times higher than typical competitive systems on the market. The automation system logs inspection results in a SQL database and stores cropped images showing every contaminant with timestamps, allowing the customer to review detected contaminants, eliminate issues in the plant and reduce waste while ensuring high processing speeds and uptime. It was not a straight path from the original design to winning the 2019 Innovation Showcase Award, according to Youngs, but reliable technology and support made it easier to navigate.
“The product line went through several stages of R&D, and we are now producing the second generation of Foreign Material Inspection Systems. We have continuously worked to improve the system, focusing on increasing detection capability, lowering manufacturing time and cost, and reducing the overall footprint of the machine,” Youngs explains. “Working with Beckhoff has been a large contributor to Prospection’s success. Beckhoff offers highly reliable products, and the support we receive from Beckhoff is some of the best in the industry. The Beckhoff components are high-quality, compact and well supported to make it easy to design, commission and scale new machine lines.”
Want to increase the automation capabilities of your food processing machinery? Contact your local Beckhoff sales engineer today.
James Figy is the Senior Content Specialist for Beckhoff Automation LLC.
A version of this article previously appeared in Food Engineering.