The Journal of Industry and Technology

Industrial Analytical Instrumentation

Euro Technology

Serving industry for over 36 years
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Automation and control

Increased yields can help drive emobility uptake

The benefits of renewable energy sources such as water, wind and solar power are well known, and electric cars are not a new concept. However, to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, which will be exhausted in just one century, efficient ways of mass producing the cells need to be established.

The electric motor can be up to four times more efficient than the combustion engine. Given the finite nature of fossil fuels, the uptake of electric cars or emobility as it is now called is inevitable. However, what does this mean for automation technology?  Steve Sands, Product Manager at Festo GB, reviews the current situation.

Fossil fuels are expected to be depleted by 2112 and a report by WWF says that in the UK one in 17 cars by 2020, and one in six by 2030, must be electric if the UK is to meet emission targets and bring an end to a dependence on oil. This means that the UK will need to put 1.7 million electric vehicles on the road by 2020 and then treble take-up of the technology in the following decade if it is to meet its climate change targets.

Image: For electric cars to compete against Britain's fleet of 31m fossil fuel cars they need to be more affordable.  Automation technology already offers solutions.

Image left:: Contactless transport of sheets of glass and delicate film with the air bearing ATBT from Festo: a layer of air on the fine surface allows battery packs to glide evenly.

Image right: ads-tec production system: Automated bonding, feeding and handling of lithium-ion energy storage devices.

However, there were only 1,052 claims on the government electric car subsidy in 2011 and one of the barriers to the adoption of electric vehicles is their cost. Despite government grants the vehicles are still expensive, constrained in supply and there are too many good conventional alternatives.  

For electric cars to compete against Britain's fleet of 31m fossil fuel cars they need to be more affordable. Consumers will only accept emobility suitable for daily use when the batteries allow a sufficient distance to be travelled and their cost does not increase the vehicle price compared with an equivalent petrol or diesel model.

Expensive batteries
Currently between 30 and 40 per cent of the cost of electric vehicles is down to the battery. Battery production manufacturing costs are high and there is a lot of research into alternative materials and processes. For now, one way to reduce cell costs is through increasing efficiency in automation.

The problem is that battery lithium-ion production is still predominately a manual process with a large number of individual steps. During the battery manufacturing process, two battery cells are bonded by a foil. Each cell is bonded to a copper plate and several double cells are combined to form a battery pack. With conventional automation processes the cells can only be gripped in certain places using vacuum generators. This means that reliable holding of the cell is not guaranteed.

The handling of sensitive lithium-ion cells is a major challenge for battery manufacturers as the cells can be easily damaged or contaminated during the manufacturing process. If we are to eventually have efficient mass production, we need to set up technologically flexible electrode and cell production for the manufacture of battery prototypes with a high degree of standardisation and automation. Mechatronic solutions which integrate expertise from different areas of process and factory automation and transfer it to the latest technologies in battery production look promising.

Air bearings as a solution
"ads-tec", a company which develops automated production systems for high performance lithium energy storage devices first developed a production method for automating the bonding, feeding and handling of cells on a laboratory scale. The aim was to provide production facilities that would allow the fast, low cost production of cells and battery systems.

Engineers worked with Festo to develop a new front-end solution for handling lithium-ion cells, with an air bearing. The ATBT air bearing was initially designed for use in the solar or electrical manufacturing industry. It produces an evenly distributed layer of air on its fine surface, which allows delicate objects to glide smoothly, enabling the reliable contactless transport of sheets of glass and delicate film.

Festo's experts have now applied the technology to battery production, by making use of a reverse effect. Instead of 'blowing' air, the air bearing draws a vacuum which is distributed over the large surface. Festo's ATBT suction pad has been used in a battery bonding prototype machine, where it is ideal for handling, clamping and holding the delicate cell packs during production

As the new air bearing grips the entire surface of the battery plate, the bonding process is no longer prone to stress fractures caused during production.  It is proving to be an effective solution for efficient automation processes and increasing productivity.

Despite their higher costs the level of acceptance for electric cars is growing worldwide. This applies in particular to the emerging markets of China and India, where mobility is also rising. 92% of people in India and 88% in China are willing to consider an electric car if buying a new car within the next five years. In the UK and France this figure is only 57%, but the number is rising and production innovation will help reduce costs and bring forward the emobility revolution!

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Position transmitter for simple stroke
measuring and feedback up to 160mm

Festo, the leading supplier of automation equipment, has launched a new range of pneumatic cylinder position transmitters, the programmable SDAT-MHS.  Economic and easy to set up, the high performance pneumatic cylinder mounted sensors give accurate position feedback over stroke lengths up to 160mm, enabling engineers and machine builders to gain position feedback and conduct simple object measurement or identification.

There are five transmitters available with 50, 80, 100, 125 and 160mm sensing ranges. They offer excellent repeatability, measuring absolute values such as lengths, thicknesses and heights, and are therefore ideal for process monitoring and object detection, for example for monitoring components and displacements in applications such as assembly, riveting, ultrasonic welding, pressing or adhesive bonding.

Typically two cylinder switches are used in basic pneumatic 'end-to-end 'movement applications, but for multiple positions or intermediate positions multiple switches and PLC inputs are required to detect and interpret the position.  Now, with the new SDAT-MHS, engineers and machine builders need only one transmitter, which enables them to save significant installation time. 

SDAT-MHS can be set up with analogue current output 4-20mA, a switching output and an IO-Link combined in a single device. As a result, users can benefit from maximum flexibility in their choice of signal processing method with just one device. 

A simple interface allows up to four channels to be programmed in IO-Link mode.  This means that almost all applications can be controlled without having to program the analogue input of the PLC.

SDAT-MHS is the only position transmitter of its type that is IP65 rated, therefore providing excellent protection against the ingress of dust and water in more demanding application areas.  In addition, the transmitters feature three LEDs which uniquely help with set up and alert the user if they are within or outside the measuring range. The transmitters can be fitted easily to any cylinder with a T-slot and are available with up to 20m of cable.

"With our new SDAT-MHS position transmitters it's now possible to measure longer stroke lengths, extending the scope for pneumatic cylinders being used as measuring devices giving accurate closed-loop position feedback," says Steve Sands, Product Manager at Festo. "We're delighted to extend our range of cylinder mounted sensors. The ease of set-up compared with individual switches or older designs provides a far more elegant and cost saving alternative."

For further information about the company's products and services, view website: 
Refer to page 406

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