"Plug-and-Play" Vision for Robots

What do you get when you combine the capabilities of a small, Canadian machine vision technology company with the market clout and integration prowess of one of the premier players in North American robotics?

The answer, according to Thomas M. Stroin, vice president of ABB Inc.’s North American Robot Automation business unit, in Auburn Hills, Mich., is “a marriage made in heaven.”

Specifically, Stroin is talking about the agreement announced in early March, by which ABB (www.abb.com) is teaming up with Braintech Inc. (www.braintech.com), North Vancouver, B.C., Canada, to jointly develop and market vision-guided robotic systems to ABB’s North American automotive customers. Under terms of the deal, ABB gets exclusive rights to integrate Braintech’s eVisionFactory (eVF) technology into vision-guided robotic systems sold into the North American automotive market.

The deal meets the needs of both partners, Stroin says. “Braintech wanted to get its technology out into the market, and we were a vehicle for doing that,” he notes. And from ABB’s perspective, the Braintech technology will provide a more robust, repeatable and cost-effective approach to vision-guided robotic systems than the custom approaches typically used in the past, Stroin adds.

Off-the-shelf

Under terms of the agreement, Braintech’s eVF platform software will be “tightly coupled” with ABB robot controllers, using “low-level, high speed communication” between the vision and control software, says Owen Jones, Braintech chief executive officer. Among other things, this will enable “plug-and-play” capabilities, making for ABB vision-guided robot systems that are easy to use and extremely robust, Jones says.

“This will be a totally engineered solution,” adds ABB’s Stroin. “It’s something we’re going to have almost off-the-shelf. We’ll need to do just a little application-specific programming, and then we can implement a standard camera, standard cabling and standard lighting.”

Among key features of the Braintech technology is its recently patented SC3D (Single Camera 3 Dimensional) system, which Jones says is the only commercially available vision technology that can perform 3D-part location using only one camera. At least one outside consultant supports that contention. “There’s definitely some research stuff that’s out there, but I am not aware of any other company besides Braintech that has commercialized 3D-vision technology using a single camera,” says Nello Zuech, a machine vision consultant and president of Vision Systems International Inc. (www.imagelabs.com/vsi), in Yardley, Pa. The technology should make 3D-vision more cost-effective than competing approaches that rely on multiple images, or on more than one camera using stereo methods or other techniques to gather 3D information, Zuech says.

ABB’s Stroin confirms that the SC3D capability will reduce system hardware costs. And by reducing the complexity and time required to gather 3D parts data, the technology will also greatly reduce the cycle time needed for a vision-guided robot to locate and pick parts, he says, opening potential for new applications.

ABB will initially target the technology toward power train applications, in which the Braintech software will direct robot arms in handling heavy components such as engine blocks, crankshafts and transmission cases, says Stroin. ABB Canada and Braintech have actually worked together on these kinds of applications on a less formal, non-exclusive basis since 2000, he adds, and the current agreement was “a natural extension” of that relationship.

New orders

For Braintech, a 10-year-old engineering software development company with 23 employees, the ABB deal is a major win, Jones notes. The earlier joint efforts with ABB Canada over the past four years have led to 30 ABB/Braintech vision-guided robot systems now in the field, he says, at both U.S. and Canadian plants operated by Ford, General Motors and Delphi. And with the new, exclusive agreement with ABB in place, Jones expects the pace to pick up. The companies have already received orders for eight new ABB/Braintech vision-guided robotic systems since the deal was announced, he says. “And our goal is to do about 40 systems this year.”

While terms of the agreement prevent Braintech from working with other robot vendors for sales into North American automotive applications, ABB does maintain the ability to work with other vision vendors. If a particular automotive plant or supplier has standardized on another vision vendor’s system, ABB will work with that vendor’s product if the customer desires, says Stroin. But he is quick to add that ABB does intend to push its new integrated solution. “Our goal now as partners with Braintech is to make this totally engineered vision system the predominant solution for vision-guided robotics in the marketplace,” Stroin concludes.

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