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ID and vision solutions for contact lens packaging

08 August 2016

Janina Guptill and Jan Grootjans discuss a joint project to develop an ID and vision solution for a packaging machine for contact lenses.

Industrial automation is mostly about handling robust products. Within the manufacturing and/or packaging process and integrated vision and ID solutions need to be fast and highly productive. However, there are some applications which are more challenging, such as identifying a delicate, see-through product in a clear liquid while reading a translucent code. For NKL Contactlenzen, a manufacturer of hard and soft lenses, the Dutch company Stevens Engineering has equipped a packaging machine with vision and ID systems from Cognex which see what is almost invisible.

NKL Contactlenzen is a subsidiary of Menicon, the Japan-based supplier of lens materials, lens design and lens care solutions. At its production facilities in  the Netherlands, NKL has installed a compact packaging machine with high quality and hygiene requirements in which customer-specific lenses are packaged efficiently and carefully. The turnkey solution, which combines mechanical design with electrical automation, was developed and installed by Stevens Engineering. The vision and ID solutions employed in this packaging machine were delivered by Cognex.

After a final manual lens inspection, the operator places the lens in the lens holder and places this in the newly developed product carrier. The machine takes the product carrier with the lens holder and adds the special preservation liquid, seals it with aluminum foil and closes the lens holder’s cover – ready for shipping. The machine has a remarkably small footprint and requires almost no manpower. The seal quality is extremely high and the fluid dosing is highly accurate. The cycle time is currently just 10 seconds and each product and lens holder can be tracked at all times both during and after packaging thanks to Cognex ID technology and an SQL database.

Identification for accurate filling
The packaging machine is equipped with a rotary table with 10 positions for operating and controlling the lens, lens holder and the product carrier. One of the first jobs in the packaging machine involves being processed by the DataMan 200 from Cognex. The DataMan 200 is a small, fixed-mounted industrial high-performance barcode reader  with a resolution of 752 x 480 pixels and a global shutter ideal for 1-D applications. 

Within NKL’s packaging machine, the reader scans the 1-D barcode label on the product carrier. Based on this identification, the lens holder is then accurately filled with one of two available liquids for preservation. 

Next, another vision system from Cognex, the In-Sight 7050,  detects the lens. This is a challenging application because the lens is not only transparent, but also has different colours and is covered in liquid. However, the fully integrated In-Sight system is perfectly equipped for such sophisticated applications thanks to its autofocus and fast image capture functions. The smart camera also checks whether the lens is covered by enough fluid and whether there is any spoilage, such as drops outside the lens storage section. The camera system was configured with In-Vision’s standard software and inspection tools, so no additional scripting or manual configuration was required.

End of process verification
Finally, the lens holder is sealed with aluminum foil and the plastic lid is closed. The lens holder lid is then printed with a UV ink 2-D matrix code to clearly identify the lens. The 1-D barcode on the product carrier and the 2-D matrix code on the lens cover outside are now read by another DataMan 200. Here, the reader’s integrated bright field is complemented by special UV lighting to detect the UV ink printed code. The product and packaging data acquired helps to verify the completion of the process in the SQL database and NKL’s management information system.

It took Stevens Engineering less than half a year to develop and install this customer-specific solution for NKL Contactlenzen. Following a further six months of usage within a ‘clean room’ production environment, the customer is satisfied with the packaging solution which offers multiple functionalities on a very small footprint. The new machine is faster and requires less manpower, which leads to constantly high packaging quality. Compared to the previous solution, the quality checks and the packaging quality have been enhanced, fulfilling the high requirements for this delicate product. Currently, NKL and Stevens are discussing further improvements for the next generation of this packaging machine. The optimum quality check and traceability will again, be ensured by Cognex systems.

Janina Guptill is marketing specialist at Cognex Germany Inc.
Jan Grootjans is project manager manufacturing & machinery at Stevens Engineering.

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