Conveying and sorting in one!

Festo has developed a new pneumatic conveyor concept – the WaveHandler – for the transportation and simultaneous sorting of delicate objects.

“Delicate FMCG products, like fruit and vegetables, require particular care in their handling and transportation if they are to make a timely arrival to market with minimum damage losses,” says Steve Sands, Product Manager, Festo. “Their limited shelf-life means that time is of the essence. In such cases, it’s believed that industry can learn a lot from natural principles and wave technology is one such principle. The new WaveHandler pneumatic conveyor concept could help the food & packaging industry make huge cost savings.”

WaveHandler – transporting and sorting in one.

The flexible polyamide bellows structure with the integrated electronics and valve technology in the substructure

Individual modules can be connected as required and are self-configuring to guarantee the rapid networking of the entire system.

Individual modules can be connected as required and are self-configuring to guarantee the rapid networking of the entire system.

The conveyor consists of numerous bellows modules that deform the surface creating a wave motion that transports the objects in a targeted manner. Inspiration for this principle was provided by monitoring natural waves. The movement of wind over the smooth surface of the water produces small ripples, which grow as the wind pushes against them. However, it is energy being moved by the waves, not water. The water molecules within a wave move up and down in a circular motion, but remain in roughly the same place. Yet the energy produced causes the wave to roll over the surface of the sea. The WaveHandler system behaves in a similar way: while each individual bellow advances and retracts in the same spot, a wave moves over the surface of the conveyor.

The system display utilises forward thinking technologies based around Web4.0 concepts. Autonomous actuators, comprising 216 connected pneumatic bellows modules, are attached underneath the covering that forms the surface of the conveyor. Each module consists of bellows kinematics on top, an integrated standard valve MHA1 from Festo and the appropriate electronics for actuating the valve. The bellows structure is pneumatically driven and can expand and contract by around 1 to 2 cm. The conveyor is supplied with power and control commands, via a CAN bus, by a compressed air channel and an electrical cable running through all the modules. Each identical module recognises its position in the network and is programmed to understand its role.

Mounted above the WaveHandler system is a camera system that senses the objects on the conveyor. The camera transmits the images to a computer that processes them and actuates the conveyor via software developed specifically for this purpose. In the bellow modules, each microcontroller receives commands via the CAN bus and forwards them to the valve. The respective bellows structure expands when the valve is switched, which causes the surface to arch at this point. The end result is a control network that moves objects on the surface in a targeted manner, enabling it to take over the sorting and moving action in the process.

Modular in design, the WaveHandler system could be positioned in the centre of a conveying unit to distribute the goods to the next conveyors on the left or right. The time and effort needed for installing the conveyor is reduced since an additional handling unit is no longer required for the sorting process. Individual modules can be connected as required and are self-configuring, which opens up new opportunities in applications where subsystems need to be quickly and flexibly integrated into production sequence.

“Whether it is decentralised intelligence, high transformability or plug and produce, the principles of the factory of tomorrow are already playing an important role in today’s products,” concludes Sands.

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