Spreading the Word about Robotics, Vision Systems and Deep Learning
Rapidly expanding firm Acquire Automation offers inspection and automation solutions for packaging and manufacturing operations. From its base in Fishers, Indiana, it designs, builds and supplies vision systems and automation equipment. The company is focused on a concept called deep learning and wants to spread the word that robotics are good for both the bottom line and the workforce at large.
Acquire has customers in a wide variety of sectors, including consumer goods, food and beverage, original equipment manufacturer (OEM), industrial manufacturing, alcohol, pharmaceuticals, medical devices and vitamins and supplements.
“Our bread and butter has been FDA [Food and Drug Administration] regulated or highly-regulated industries. There are regulations these industries have to meet in terms of product quality and packaging quality. There’s validation that you have to do as well, which requires extensive knowledge and expertise to meet regulations,” says John Duffin, president of Acquire Automation.
Duffin is also president of The Clarke Companies, a holding firm for Acquire and another business called Clarke Solutions. Acquire Automation split from Clarke Solutions in 2007 to form a separate entity.
“Acquire focuses on inspection systems – primarily vision inspection systems for manufacturing. For example, [we supply inspection equipment] for Tabasco that inspects every single Tabasco bottle that goes across the world—the front label, the back label, the cap, et cetera. They’re obviously very concerned with quality, as a lot of our customers are. They want to make sure that they have a top-end product,” says Duffin.
Acquire’s vision systems can check codes, make sure labels are affixed properly, count components and products and inspect them for defects and then automatically trigger the defective component or product’s removal from a production line if a defect is found. The systems make sure caps, seals and lids are fitted firmly, take measurements, check tamper bands and more.
The company offers carton and tray component verification: the process of making sure all products, parts and corporate literature that are supposed to be contained in a tray or carton are present and properly loaded. Another solution is called the label printer and reconciliation system and is centered on printing, inspecting and reconciling product labels.
Acquire has 3D inspection equipment that uses 3D vision to confirm the volume and dimensions of food products, identify surface chips or defects and read raised or embossed characters on components.
Robotic guidance is a company specialty that incorporates automation equipment and vision systems. Engineers will work with a manufacturer to set up a customized robotic guidance system for inspection, product handling and quality control duties. The aim is to boost productivity, quality and profits as well as the safety of plant workers.
The company also has a printing system called mark and verify that puts numbers, codes and other information onto products. Marking goods with unique identifiers is a regulatory requirement in some markets while supply chain serialization and traceability are growing issues throughout the entire manufacturing sector.
Acquire officials are very interested in the technology concept known as ‘deep learning.’ Duffin describes deep learning as “the ability for machines to learn and do more, much like humans learn and adapt to changing environments.”
Deep learning refers to the ability of machines to gather and analyze huge amounts of data and then apply it to new situations. Traditionally, vision systems were programmed to identify and analyze specific parts or products on a conveyor belt or similar production environment. A traditional vision system might have difficulty achieving this function when confronted with a box containing random parts of different shapes and sizes lying on top of each other. An inspection system equipped with deep learning vision processing software, however, could be programmed to identify and inspect parts under such a scenario.
Using deep learning and other enhancements for vision inspection purposes is not about “dumping the data on our customers, but utilizing the data to make better decisions, to predict failures, to make sure every product the customer ships out is great quality,” he says.
Acquire has new products on the go for release in the near-future. As part of the attention to deep learning, the company wants to enhance the capability for data analysis in its new equipment.
In an age of social media, a zero defect policy is more important than ever, as he points out. A single tweet from an aggrieved consumer containing a photograph of a misplaced label or damaged product can have devastating consequences for a company.
“You can’t rely on statistical sampling anymore. You need to be assured that every product going out the door is good quality,” states Duffin.
When it comes to creating its solutions, Acquire is both a manufacturer and an integrator. Among other items, the company makes its own vision solutions utilizing only the best vision inspection algorithms.
“We do manufacturing, assembling here in-house. We do all the design work but use local firms to actually do the welding, sanding and those activities; then we’ll finish the rest of the assembly and start up the system here at our facility.”
On the robotics side, it is more of an integrator. Customers approach Acquire with their requirements, and the company finds the appropriate robotics from robot manufacturers such as FANUC or Kuka. The company will then use these robotics and any other needed components to create a solution to meet the customer’s needs.
Acquire has worked with some very well-known companies, seventy-five percent which are Fortune 500 companies. Most of the work Acquire does is based in North America, though many of the companies it works with are global in scope.
At present, the company has just over 130 employees compared to roughly one hundred last year at this time. Duffin attributes this rapid growth to “a lot of need for our services and solutions within manufacturing … We plan to continue this kind of growth for next few years as well.”
According to Duffin, Acquire’s biggest challenge has been this rapid growth. It can be difficult to find large numbers of “highly qualified staff and get them trained and ramped up effectively,” he says. Acquire has established internal structures and processes to absorb and assimilate new employees successfully, which is a good thing, as he anticipates more growth in the future.
“We’re 130 employees now. I see us around 250 to 300 employees [in five years]. I would see us add another three or four other branches. We’re potentially looking at some things internationally in that time frame too,” he states. Most of those additional branches would be remote.
New hires have to have a scientific background and other attributes. “We’re very focused on engineering technology, so [we like new employees with] an engineering degree or engineering technology degree, or if we’re looking at a technician, somebody who’s had some vocational school, that can understand PLC [Programmable Logic Controller] and automation programming technology. From a culture standpoint, it really comes down to flexibility and a love of engineering and solving problems. Flexibility is big because in the manufacturing industry today, things change very quickly, so you need the ability to adapt and be flexible.”
Flexibility and a ‘work hard, play hard’ mentality are also key components of the company’s corporate culture.
“The clients we serve are very demanding, so we do need people who are very flexible, that will jump and really work hard to satisfy the client and make sure they are happy with what we’ve provided … You might get a call late at night or have to go on a weekend. So, we want to make sure we have a culture where we have fun. We have corporate events. If you’re not busy, take a break, have some fun.”
Until very recently, Acquire primarily relied on word-of-mouth to promote its services. Now, it has a marketing team that takes a more proactive approach. The company’s website has been updated; it has profiles on social media and now attends trade shows on a regular basis. The company also hosts online seminars on deep learning for customers and prospective clients, which further highlights its abilities.
Acquire is on a mission to improve the image of robotics and automation. The goal is to change the perception that robots and automated machines are job-killers.
Robotics and automation systems offer “an opportunity for everybody. When you look at the jobs in the United States, people want to have the higher-tech, educated jobs that are higher paying. As the industry develops the technology around robots and inspection, we still require people in order to keep the operations going. I think that’s where a lot of the jobs are and where a lot of people are going to want to focus. I don’t necessarily see all the jobs going away, just the evolution of what people are doing,” says Duffin.