Customer Success Story: AMP Robotics Vortex™
In the cutting-edge world of robotics and automation, collaboration between technology providers and innovative companies is fundamental. This customer success story highlights the successful partnership between acontis technologies, a leading EtherCAT and real-time software solutions provider, and AMP Robotics™, a leader in AI-powered sortation for recycling automation.
Customer Profile: AMP Robotics
AMP is modernizing and scaling the world’s recycling infrastructure by applying AI-powered sortation to increase recycling rates and economically recover recyclables as raw materials for the global supply chain. AMP is headquartered in Colorado and has hundreds of deployments across North America, Asia, and Europe. AMP’s deployments range from AI-enabled retrofitting of recycling solutions to the full design and operation of new turn-key recycling facilities.
This article will focus on the use of acontis’ EtherCAT master stack, EC-Master, in AMP’s revolutionary thin film removal solution, AMP Vortex™. It will also highlight how EC-Master and other acontis EtherCAT software tools enabled AMP developers to address and overcome major design challenges during the development of Vortex.
Vortex is an innovative product that harvests thin film, like plastic grocery bags, off conveyor belts at recycling facilities. Historically, thin film was considered a contaminant in recycling facilities because it is known to tangle downstream equipment and reduce the sorting efficiency of the line. Recently, however, it has also become a reclaimable commodity, offering additional incentives for its efficient sorting.
AMP Vortex utilizes a series of high-speed drives, motors, sensors, I/O, and safety systems to remove the thin film effectively and safely. To operate optimally, the advanced hardware systems in Vortex demand an equally sophisticated communication system.
Design Challenge: Inadequate Communication
AMP initially faced significant design challenges with Vortex’s servo systems due to the limitations of the original communication protocol. AMP’s first Vortex prototype system, which was developed under significant time constraints, used servos communicating over Modbus RTU via a serial connection.
AMP quickly realized that the communication rates of Modbus RTU were insufficient, which resulted in delayed movements, missed movements, and command drops. Furthermore, the baud rate of the communication protocol was not sufficient to measure the high-rate position of the system or capture data from numerous safety sensors. AMP’s software engineering manager, Vin Taylor, described the initial situation: “It was just horrible. We couldn’t communicate with [Vortex] at the rate we wanted to.”
There was a clearly defined need for a more robust and capable communication system to improve the reliability, functionality, and effectiveness of Vortex’s operation.
After facing significant initial design challenges and limitations due to an inadequate communication protocol, the AMP development team decided to upgrade to a more capable and robust communication protocol, even if it might be considered overkill for their needs. Thanks to its reputation as one of the fastest industrial communication protocols available, EtherCAT was identified by the AMP team as a potentially suitable communication solution for Vortex.
After that experience [with Modbus RTU], we wanted to swing the pendulum the other way entirely. So, we felt like EtherCAT was the technology that would be the most reliable and would not have any issues with communication rate.
AMP’s team also expressed that there was a desire to reduce the total number of protocols and peripheral devices used in the Vortex system. While EtherCAT was initially explored to address the design challenges within the drive system, an added benefit of using EtherCAT was that the other subsystems, like I/O and safety, could now be consolidated under the same protocol. This unification is possible due to EtherCAT’s open standard, which supports interoperability between thousands of devices from various vendors, ensuring integrators will never be limited to devices from a single manufacturer.
AMP began transitioning from Modbus RTU to EtherCAT communication using an open-source EtherCAT Master, SOEM (Simple Open EtherCAT Master). Over the next four weeks, AMP developers made some progress and started to see the benefits of using EtherCAT in Vortex; however, they were also running into limitations presented by the open-source stack such as unsupported features, unsatisfactory technical support, and limited documentation (more on this topic below).
To accelerate the transition to EtherCAT communication and to avoid the initial development effort of creating a new master from scratch, AMP explored various commercial EtherCAT master stacks, including acontis’ EC-Master.
Integration of EC-Master
After weeks of wrestling with the open-source EtherCAT Master, AMP began looking for a “more mature” EtherCAT offering in hopes of finding a solution that would allow them to fast-track the switch to EtherCAT. After researching commercial EtherCAT master solutions, the AMP team identified three options including acontis’ EC-Master, CODESYS EtherCAT Master, and Koenig’s KPA.
The team at AMP requested a free evaluation version of EC-Master and spent the next several weeks testing the solution against their project requirements and other solutions. The Vortex developers were able to stand up a proof of concept quickly thanks to the comprehensive example applications and public documentation provided by acontis. Satisfied by EC-Master’s performance and compatibility with their existing hardware, AMP decided to move forward with the acontis solution for use in the Vortex system.
When asked about the process of implementing EC-Master into Vortex, Vin Taylor stated, “After we signed up with acontis and started integrating [EC-Master], it definitely went faster than with the SOEM [solution]; no doubt about that. I was happy with the progress [with EC-Master].”
EC-Master vs. SOEM
While there are several free, open-source EtherCAT master solutions available, such as SOEM, they are often limited in out-of-box feature support, product documentation, and technical support. These limitations can significantly increase upfront development efforts and costs and can result in a less robust communication and control system compared to a fully supported commercial solution like acontis’ EC-Master.
We were trying to use, SOEM. And we pretty quickly ran into limitations there. We tried for maybe three weeks or a month on that before we [decided that] it's not well supported enough, it's not well documented enough. We really were just running into brick walls.
Along with inadequate documentation and support, many open-source solutions are not fully featured out of the box. This means that developers will have to implement key features, such as full Mailbox communication and Distributed Clocks, on their own. While feasible for EtherCAT experts, it often poses a significant challenge for most developers.
“One of the major issues we were having with SOEM was that the CoE support was minimal,” explained Vin Taylor, referring to SOEM’s handling of the CAN Application Protocol over EtherCAT mailbox protocol. “[SOEM] provided an interface, but you still had to implement the library. You had to implement all the code behind the interface yourself, which was a major hurdle for us, so even having to not build that was a payoff to go to acontis.”
Results and Benefits
Public documentation, price, and responsiveness of your team were the three big standouts for acontis.
The implementation of EC-Master resulted in significant performance improvements in Vortex. AMP experienced enhanced communication, reduced operational challenges, and improved system reliability. The integration of the I/O, sensor, and emergency stop systems into the EtherCAT network reduced the complexity of the Vortex system resulting in a streamlined supply chain, simplified maintenance, and accelerated implementation processes. These improvements led to better thin film sorting quality, reduced downtime, and improved overall operational efficiency.
AMP identified the following benefits of EC-Master:
Which resulted in:
The partnership between AMP and acontis technologies exemplifies how the right technology solutions can dramatically improve industrial processes, solve complex design challenges, and maximize product performance. This collaboration not only addressed AMP's immediate difficulties but also set a path for future innovations in the recycling industry.
For those facing similar challenges in automation and robotics, acontis technologies offers world-class technology solutions that drive efficiency, inspire innovation, and are backed by top-notch technical and customer support. Interested parties are encouraged to contact acontis technologies, request an evaluation, and explore the wealth of resources they offer on their website.