Often a problem for optical inspection systems, specular reflection is, in this case, the key to system efficiency. Thanks to LEDs and off-the-shelf CCD camera technology, robots can now insert automotive windshields on the fly as a car moves along the production line. The first such application in the world is Ford Fiesta and Mazda 121 assembly lines at a Ford Motor Co. plant in Dagenham, UK. What makes this application unique is not just that the glass is inserted as the line moves, but also that the specular reflection from the vehicles’ shiny surfaces provides the positioning information the robots need for accurate part placement (Figure 1). Figure 1. LEDs combined with CCD cameras allow assembly robots at a Ford plant in the UK to insert windshields while cars move along the line. Specular reflection, even from surfaces painted glossy black, provides the feedback to guide positioning robots. Applications involving transparent materials, such as glass, and polished metals often are a challenge to optical inspection technology, partly because rounded features on any specular surface act as cylindrical mirrors, producing reflections that can confuse data readings. Sensors on the Dagenham assembly lines, however, take advantage of this specular reflection — even from glossy black painted surfaces — to guide positioning robots. The insertion application, developed by Oxford Sensor Technology Ltd. in Abingdon, UK, and systems integrator Prophet Control Systems Ltd. of Stanford-le-Hope, UK, relies on three robot arms, each of which has four specular reflection sensor units mounted on its gripper frame. Each unit comprises an LED and two coplanar CCD cameras (Figure 2). The centrally mounted stack of LEDs provides illumination, while the linear CCD cameras, placed on either side of the diodes, detect a series of narrow peaks that represent images of the light source formed by each curved feature. Matching peaks from each CCD, combined with triangulation, allows the calculation of the location of the surface relative to the sensor. Figure 2. During on-the-fly windshield insertion, linear CCD cameras, one on each side of centrally mounted LEDs, detect a series of narrow peaks representing images of the light source formed by each curved feature. Matching peaks from each CCD, combined with triangulation, allows the calculation of the location of the surface relative to the sensor. Using this concept, the Dagenham line can process 100 windshields an hour, yet requires only two operators, instead of the six that previously were required. Capital costs also are reportedly lower than on the old line. One reason it has taken automakers so long to automate windshield insertion in this manner is the high skill level needed in the process. Get it wrong, and the result may be adverse wind noises and high warranty claims for leakage. On higher-volume vehicles, including vans like the Ford Transit, most automakers use robots to insert the glass with its polyurethane adhesive sealant into the windshield opening. In North America alone, they account for 70 to 80 percent of windshield insertions. Manual glazing with assists is typical in lines with production rates of 30 jobs or fewer per hour. Until the Dagenham line, in every direct glazing installation relying on robots, the vehicle body would come to rest at the glazing station before glass insertion. On some lines, a conveyor must still move the body to a station where it can be held steady during glazing. Once the body is static at a known reference point, laser-based sensors mounted above the vehicle provide the data that the robot requires to position the glass centrally in the aperture. It also may be necessary for the robot to hold the glass in place under pressure for some time. Ultimately, even the best of these direct glazing systems can require rework of the product to ensure a snug fit. Using specular reflection This is not necessarily the case at Dagenham. The on-the-fly system uses a light beam to trigger windshield insertion. When an oncoming car body breaks the beam, the program begins. To gather data, the system relies on the fact that the sheet steel forming the basis of the windshield aperture includes an external radius or corner, an internal radius and an edge. Each feature produces a specular reflection image. As one camera studies this scene, it can capture the specular reflection from the changes in profile. Meanwhile, the second camera produces a similar image. Using these two images and the offset, it is possible to triangulate the position of the sensors — and hence the distance between windshield and the opening. Thus, the sensors allow automatic location of vehicle body features in a manner that can guide robots to insert windshields and rear and side windows while the car is moving on the conveyor. The sensors on each robot gripper frame have a high-speed serial link to a computer. Using data supplied by the track-mounted encoder, the distance of the sensors from predefined features of the car body around the windshield aperture are calculated, feeding real-time correction data back to the robot. Each sensor has a standoff range of about 250 mm (the distance it must be from the component being viewed). The sensor field of view, though, is 100 mm. These specifications imply that the object under view must be accurately located. In the case of the Fiesta bodies traveling down the conveyor track, this is achieved with metal guides that bring the skillet conveyor carrying the body into position for the start of the glass insertion cycle. While the track is moving, an operator places a windshield in a rack. The first robot picks up the windshield, passes it to an automatic primer and sets it down on a jig. A second robot picks up the glass and moves it in front of the dispenser, where a polyurethane bead is placed around the perimeter. It is then set down and picked up by another robot that places it in the opening. Done in 39 seconds The encoder on the conveyor produces data that, with the information from the specular reflection sensors on the third robot’s grippers, translate into correction data to drive the robot arm. The robot inserts the glass as the car travels backward down the line; however, it could just as easily insert glass into a car body moving toward it. Typical cycle time is one vehicle every 36 seconds. he basic reason that this system works in such an application is the way the image forms. In essence, the external and internal corners form small-radius convex and concave cylindrical mirrors, respectively. From standard optics theory, such mirrors have a focal length that is equal to half the radii of curvature. In the case of the car body, the radii of curvature of the corners typically might be a few millimeters. Where the standoff distance of the sensor (typically 200 to 250 mm) is large compared with the radii of the corners, an image of the light source forms close to the focus of the mirrors, located halfway between the center of the curvature and the surface (Figure 3). These are the images of the sensor light source that the cameras detect. When the system reads these data, small corrections are applied to reference position measurements relative to the center of curvature. Figure 3. In the car body, the radii of curvature of the corners of the steel frame may typically be a few millimeters. Where the standoff distance of the sensor is large compared with the radii of the corners, an image of the light source forms near the focus of the mirrors, halfway between the center of the curvature and the surface. The cameras detect these images of the sensor light source. One benefit of this system over more traditional optical methods is its insensitivity to the color of the surface. This is important from the viewpoint of time savings and, therefore, economics. Other sensing systems can take a number of seconds to take readings of the color of the car under surveillance and feed data to the computing system. The system is insensitive to color because the positions of the peaks formed in the images by the specular reflections depend only on the geometric form of the surface. The strength of these signals will depend on the quality of the paintwork — its luster, for example — but is largely independent of the color of the surface. This is in direct contrast to conventional techniques that rely on some degree of lambertian scattering to detect a signal. Adaptability Although the specular reflection hardware — LEDs and off-the-shelf hardware — may not be that complex, extensive work was necessary to develop the software to control and calibrate the system. As a result, during calibration, the specular reflection sensor system can accommodate unusual features — such as spot welds or sealant — that might occur from time to time in the viewing area. An easy-teach facility also allows operators to quickly set up the system for new features. In addition, although the UK-based installation uses robots from ABB UK Ltd. of Milton Keynes, UK, it is possible to interface sensors with other makes of robot, including those from Comau, Kawasaki, Kuka and Motoman. System bus speed limits each sensor’s viewing time, but under normal conditions, the unit can accept 10 readings per second, which is more than adequate to deal with installations of the type found at Dagenham. For more complex environments, readings can be ramped up to 100 measurements per second. Up to 15 individual sensors can be linked to a single interface card, enabling an installation to cope with multiple models passing down the line. Such might be the case if sedans, hatchbacks and station wagons are traveling along the same conveyor line. Meet the author John Mortimer is a retired journalist and part-time consultant to Oxford Sensor Technology Ltd. of Abingdon, UK.