Automating the Filling Process for Dangerous and Toxic Materials

How do you guarantee people's safety when dealing with dangerous or toxic materials? And how do you automate a dangerous filling process while guaranteeing that the right materials go to the right place at the right quantity? If you're Feige Filling, you develop a robotic filling technology.

For years, Feige Filling has been supplying industrial machines that are used to fill different containers. In 2006, this German company developed a new robotic technology that enables fast, safe, and cost-effective filling. Equipped with Cognex's In-Sight 5401 camera plus PatMax pattern analysis software, the "RobotFiller," a robot with a four- or six-jointed arm, can locate the different container stoppers for filling even when the containers arrive in various positions on the pallet.

Vision Tools That Find and Fill
One of the RobotFiller's most important functions is to locate the stoppers with screw closures on the drums. Because the stoppers are arranged off-center at the edge of the drum lid, they tend to be in different positions on every pallet. Safe and rapid opening, filling, and closing would not be possible without a precision vision system. PatMax, a software tool for high-precision location of objects using pattern-matching technology, reads and recognizes a great variety of patterns.

Once the stopper is located, the filling process starts. The first step is for the RobotFiller to pick up a tool that it uses to remove the screw closures of the drums and put them down on a tray. It then changes to a different tool and grips the filling valve to suit the filling job (Figure 1). Without human intervention, RobotFiller can automatically switch among different filling valves and tools for further processing, considerably accelerating the filling process. In addition, the RobotFiller protects operators when critical substances are being handled, as the complete filling area can be enclosed (Figure 2) and removed if spills occur. Following precisely calibrated filling, the jointed-arm robot switches tools again to pick up the stoppers and close the containers. With the drums filled, the pallet is ready to be transported by conveyor belt to its next destination.


Figure 1. The RobotFiller in action; the different filler valves and tools are to the right of the orange robot body


Figure 2. The general layout of the RobotFiller cells, with conveyors transporting the pallets of drums through the filling process

Safety in Traceability
Code-reading properties allow the In-Sight 5401 to detect every container. The information passed on to a safety system further up the chain ensures that the right containers for filling are located on the pallet. This plausibility check made by the camera increases process safety and helps save costs, because it prevents the incorrect assignment of filling material to the container. Further, the rugged, robust characteristics of the In-Sight 5401 allow it to operate in an environment where it is exposed to toxic material and flammable substances.

For engineer Axel Frank, automation technology manager at Feige Filling, the benefits of the In-Sight 5401 with the jointed-arm robot are clear. Attached directly to the end of the robot arm and supported by eight LEDs arranged in a circle, the intelligent camera system ensures optimum processes. The automation expert particularly appreciates the fact that no additional evaluation electronics are required with an industry PC. The clear assignment of interfaces also makes it much easier for users to familiarize themselves with the system.

A Flexible Filling System
The integration of real-time image detection makes the RobotFiller the most flexible filling system currently available. The combination of robot and vision systems creates a compatible combination that offers speed, cost savings, process reliability, and, above all, increased protection for the operator.