Drives & Controls Magazine November/December 2022

38 n SAFETY November/December 2022 Reconfigurable robot cell relies on EtherCat-based safety T he University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) has commissioned a robot cell to carry out research into reconfigurable factory concepts, and to de- risk the technologies, processes, and methodologies that can enable reconfigurability. The research is currently focusing on the software, virtual and health and safety bottlenecks that can limit the reconfigurability of manufacturing cells. One technology that the project is examining is the use of reconfigurable cell floors formed of lightweight aluminium composite panels with a honeycomb structure and a high crush strength. These panels are designed to simplify the assembly of cable ducting to provide a safe, clean, clutter-free manufacturing environment. The cell, being operated by the AMRC’s Integrated Manufacturing Group (IMG), is using a Beckhoff industrial PC that allows researchers to run a soft-PLC with guest operating systems, making it easy to integrate the Robot Operating System (ROS). The cell’s I/O and safety are linked by a Beckhoff-based EtherCat fieldbus, using appropriate bus couplers to enable two-way communications with devices that include an ABB robot. Extensive use is being made of plug-and- play devices – a crucial first step into the world of reconfigurability. Fieldbus I/O blocks can easily be distributed around the cell to add connectivity where it is needed, rather than having fixed centralised I/O with many cables running data signals across a cell. The AMRC is renowned as a leader in collaborative robotics research that is helping SMEs to integrate these technologies into their factory floors. The Centre’s projects often mature into full production systems and have improved manufacturing capabilities in numerous projects across the UK and around the world. These installations are already saving manufacturers millions of pounds in operational and capital costs by harnessing the benefits of Industry 4.0. “Because collaborative robotics still isn’t properly trusted by industry, part of the facility’s purpose is to conduct research and make mistakes so industry doesn’t have to,”explains senior AMRC control engineer, Luke Rutter.“Our remit is to demonstrate that robotics can work, is safe, can do what you want it to do, and can be relied on to do a task.” When it came to choosing a safety interlock system for the reconfigurable cell, the AMRC was already using the EtherCat fieldbus with plug-and-play I/O blocks, so it investigated potentially compatible safety products and found that Euchner’s new MGB2 modular multifunctional gate box and MSM EtherCat P bus modules matched the concept of the cell well. The safety specialist had already supplied AMRC with other devices for protecting machinery and personnel in recent years. More than just providing safety door protection, the MGB2 is a safety/operator station that allows users to implement additional functions using locking modules, extension modules and items such as the MBM EtherCat P bus module, which expand the range of applications and add variants, networking options and intelligent communications functions. According to David Dearden, Euchner’s country manager for the UK and Ireland, guard locking with local control not only meets safety levels up The University of Sheffield has commissioned a robotic cell in its Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre to study reconfigurable factory concepts. To ensure the safety of the cell, the AMRC is using an EtherCat-based guard locking system that offers local control. The AMRCs robot cell is being used to investigate various aspects of reconfigurable factories including lightweight cell floor panels that simplify the assembly of cable ducting