Driverless vehicles have big advantages over human-driven forklifts, but many of them can only be driven over predetermined routes or need other human guidance. A new application programming interface (API) lets autonomous vehicles communicate directly with the controllers of packaging equipment, allowing them to come and go as needed, without monitoring by floor workers.
The new industrial API from Otto Motors allows the programmable logic controllers (PLCs) that run conveyor belts, case packers, palletizers and other packaging equipment to communicate directly with Otto’s self-driving vehicles, guiding them around the plant floor as needed.
Dave Brown, Otto’s product and program manager for software, explains the significance of this new software.
What were the major challenges in developing an API that can communicate with a comprehensive segment of equipment and PLCs? How did Otto meet them?
Brown: The biggest challenge we had at first was finding an industry solution and a partner that would work with our current products, and our current and future customers—something that was industry-proven and that we knew our integration network could leverage.
How did you find this partner?
Brown: There’s a variety of solutions. We talked to our current customer base. We talked to our integration network, and we selected Ignition, from Inductive Automation, and their OPC-UA [Unified Architecture, a machine-to-machine communication protocol] server, which is a fairly standard product that we’re seeing in more and more factories today.
What are the major industrial communication protocols the new API can support?
Brown: For us, it was a no-brainer to get Allen-Bradley and Siemens working. We’re capable of integrating with most PLCs now—almost all of Allen-Bradley’s PLCs. We also support Modbus TCP, which many different PLCs in the industry are using today. So even if it’s not a branded Allen-Bradley or Siemens, if they’re Modbus-capable, they’re capable of talking to the auto fleet manager and the other products.
Within a packaging operation, what are biggest potential benefits of enhanced integration capability for a self-driving vehicle?
Brown: One of the biggest things packaging operations could do with this new integration is truly hands-off automation of packages from a production line, from a cutting line, directly to shipping. A good example that you might see is a controller at the end of a packaging line automatically requesting an auto self-driving vehicle [SDV] and taking it to a shipping partner to offload the truck. It closes the automation loop and it removes the need for human intervention at the end of the production line.
How would an SDV communicate with controllers of production or packaging equipment?
Brown: A PLC at the end of your production line would communicate directly with our API. So you could have something like a presence sensor at the end of a conveyor that could generate a job for an auto self-driving vehicle through our industrial API. That industrial API would then request an auto to drive to the equipment, pick up a package and move it across your facility, without any need for further automation or further human intervention.
Some of your vehicles come equipped with robot arms. Can this API help control those also?
Brown: Correct. It would generate a sequence of events for both the robotic arm and the vehicle itself.
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