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Intelligent automatons

From sorting cashew nuts to choosing the right paper for making cigarettes, a German giant’s Bangalore lab is helping companies fight global battles, reports Seema Singh.

india Updated: Aug 05, 2010 22:21 IST

At one end of the conveyor belt, cashew nuts are fed into multiple chutes. There’s the whirr and click of a nearly invisible camera. By the time they reach the other end, the nuts have been sorted — by size, shape, and colour.

Between the two ends of this prototype automated system at Siemens Corporate Research and Technologies (SCRT) lab in Bangalore, arrayed on both sides of the conveyor is a network of electronic components — actuators, drivers, controllers — that act together to analyse the image of the nut at unbelievable speeds and in real time. The result is instantaneous sorting by a bunch of parameters that the user can decide.

In its ready-to-use state, the machine can sort anywhere from 80 to 120 kilograms of cashews in an hour, says Zubin Varghese, a department head at SCRT. A large-scale grower/operator can deploy multiple machines to help him price his products right, adds Varghese.

“More than 1 million tons of cashew is processed in India every year,” he says. “If it’s not automated in four to five years, the country will surely lose out to Brazil.”

The microprocessor-fitted camera installed in the automation unit is a tiny widget in the large “sustainable infrastructure technologies” initiative that Siemens is driving from India, informally called “In India, for India.”

These come under an umbrella category called SMART, or simple, maintenance-free, affordable, reliable, and timely-to-market products.

Packaged with customised algorithms and necessary electronics, the camera system can be deployed in a variety of sectors — from security and traffic surveillance to food and beverage industry to high-end imaging in healthcare, says Mukul Saxena, senior vice-president and head of SCRT.

Indeed, the list of customers includes Britannia Industries Ltd (which uses the camera systems for checking if each biscuit is the right colour and thickness), ITC Ltd (where a camera watches over 18,000 cigarettes zipping by in an hour) and Tata Motors. For the latter, Siemens has developed a low-cost, camera-based, engine inspection, quality control, and documentation system for its Nano small car.

The kind of machine vision and real-time analytics that Siemens has installed in its camera systems follows a rapid evolution in recent times, suitably aided by an increase in computing power, a decrease in hardware costs and progress in digital signal-processing and sensory technologies.

The manufacturing industry has been one of the nimblest and the fittest adopters. The food and beverage (F&B) segment on the other hand accounts for a mere 2-3 per cent of the $3 billion automation and control solutions market in India, says Chirag Rathi, programme manager, Industrial Automation & Process Control, South Asia, Middle East, North America, at research firm Frost & Sullivan.

This, he says, is due to the high level of fragmentation in the food and beverages market and the availability of cheap labour. The high cost of these technologies doesn’t help either.

But that’s not deterring Siemens. Its industry automation division is working with a local academic institute to develop a solution that will automatically quantify the quality of rice by looking at the grain size, its consistency, and the polish of each grain.

If automation companies are developing a machine vision-based system for quality control and testing, they will have to indigenise it and price it suitably for the Indian market otherwise it will remain in the rarefied realm of R&D, says Rathi.

Present in India since 1922, the European engineering conglomerate Siemens AG operates 22 companies here. Clearly, the Indian market’s price-sensitive nature isn’t unknown to it.

“We are looking at reaching out to 300,000 odd rice mills in the country,” said Saxena. Though he declined to comment on the price, he conceded that the new system would cost a “fraction of the price of existing ones”.

As for indigenisation, he says it’s almost total, to the extent that some of the algorithms and lighting systems are custom designed for the poor ambient light and other conditions on Indian shop floors.

The market for such technologies is ripe. In the food industry, specifically, says Rathi, automation will increasingly become a key differentiating factor among competitors, already challenged by low margins, regulations, and shifting customer preferences.

“A lot more can be done with this technology in the food industry,” says H. Das, professor in the food engineering department at IIT Kharagpur.

His group has tested Siemens’s technology for grading tea leaves, a highly labour-intensive process.

From East to West

Most of the SMART products that the company is developing in India are conceived, developed, and even going to be manufactured locally.

Simultaneously, they are targeted at global markets, a strategy several multinationals are frenetically adopting, including Siemens’s close competitor General Electric Co. (GE).

When ITC came to Siemens over the niggling problem of choosing the right paper for different brands of cigarettes, little did the German company know that its solution would soon find its way into British American Tobacco and other such customers.

From the outside, the spools of papers being rolled into cigarettes all look the same, but it’s the porosity and other variations that distinguish a premium brand from an ultra premium. Devising a low-cost vision system using infrared light, a split-second inspection unit as it were, Siemens was able to fill a chink in ITC’s quality control armour.

Six years ago, Saxena came from GE to Siemens to set up the SCRT lab in Bangalore. Today, with 90 permanent researchers and several interns and visiting scholars, it’s one of the foremost research centres within Siemens with global ownership for several technologies, including embedded systems.

And the centre is fortifying its early leads. One of its low-cost camera systems is now being tested in a high-end, conventional imaging device, known as the “C-arm interventional fluoroscopic X-ray system”, which is currently being manufactured at its Goa plant.

In its crudest form, the system looks no better than a lens tethered to a small circuit board. But Sornam Vishwanathan, an engineer in the healthcare division, explains how it dramatically improves the image quality of the C-arm. Besides lowering the radiation dosage, it detects even sub-millimeter cracks in other body parts and soft tissues.

The new C-arm is undergoing clinical validation. Siemens expects to move to this platform, which will be produced locally for about $500. That’s almost a quarter of the price that Siemens pays for a platform made by an original equipment maker for its imaging system.

The smorgasbord of technologies being developed by Siemens in the country is meant for the 700 million Indians that Saxena refers to as the potential new customers at the bottom of the pyramid. These hold the most charm as well as the challenge, he says — be it the affordable grain graders or a corkscrew that purifies waste water, or a portable power plant that produces energy for the entire village using coconut shells.

“We answer the toughest challenges,” says Saxena, playing off the company’s tagline — “Siemens answers the world’s toughest questions.”