Perfect Coordination: Magnetic Levitation Provides Six Degrees of Freedom in Product Handling

July 10, 2024
Find out how Beckhoff’s XPlanar floating tiles can efficiently transport individual goods to any location via any route.

What do you get when you add hardware and software to the principles of magnetic levitation?

The likely answer from Jeff Johnson, mechatronics product manager at Beckhoff Automation, U.S., would be: Beckhoff’s XPlanar linear transport system.

The mechatronics product manager at Beckhoff Automation, U.S. demonstrated the basic principles behind this decidedly sophisticated transport system at Automate 2024 in Chicago.

Beckhoff’s Xplanar tile demo is a perennial crowd-pleaser at trade shows, notably challenging onlookers with its omni-directional, flexible floating effect.

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The “magic” behind the magnetic levitation became slightly less puzzling as Johnson explained that Xplanar movers are fitted with permanent magnets, which at once support six degrees of freedom and facilitate precise and flexible positioning of products.

The XPlanar system is made up of planar movers with highly compact drive units. All necessary components—including multiple stationary energized coils, mobile permanent magnets in the movers, power electronics, position detection, power supply and EtherCAT G communication—are integrated. The floating or levitating effect is the result of energy being converted into a precisely controlled electromagnetic field.

According to Beckhoff, the XPlanar tiles are the electrically active components that generate the electromagnetic field and cause the movers to levitate above the tiles. The movers are electrically passive.

“You get zero to 5 mm (about 0.2 in) up and down, free XY (or tilt X, tilt Y) and they can even rotate 360 deg. while moving,” said Johnson, while manipulating one of the tiles in his hand.

Flexible Movement, Maximum Throughput

Ever since the XPlanar system debuted at North American trade shows in 2020, the objective has been to showcase advances in EtherCAT, machine vision and drive technology. The company has year-over-year updated functionality and has highlighted use cases for product inspection, alignment and processing.

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The system is completely integrated into standard TwinCAT software (TF5890 software) and controlled via a central industrial PC. Beckhoff also noted that computationally intensive tasks can be optimally distributed to the corresponding system segments via a sub-IPC. Moreover, with multi-computing, the number of XPlanar movers and tiles within a system can be increased at will.

High Volume, High Mix

During the demo, Johnson pointed out two benefits for processing environments. “There is no fixed pitch for the system, so the movers can be spaced apart, and the motion is decoupled from your process,” he said.

Consider, for example, a linear indexing application, which facilitates the rotational movement of workpieces within a manufacturing or assembly line. Workers and mobile machinery are typically indexed to a station, explained Johnson. The Xplanar system instead allows movement between stations while doing the processing and this optimizes product flow to match production, he explained. Designing workflows around these features can yield between 30% and 60% footprint reduction on the manufacturing floor.

According to Johnson, manufacturers today want to produce more parts in the same manufacturing space and more varying parts. He said they are shifting from high volume, low mix to high volume, high mix, and many favor lot-size-one production.

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“I could be running multiple parts on the same product line, where each mover is going to different stations,” Johnson said. “Maybe one has to go to six stations, one has got to go to three, and they can just be intermixed.”

Beckhoff’s catalog lists the following specifications and benefits:

  • The system combines highly dynamic 2D product transportation with precise 6D product processing in a single system.
  • The 2D movement can be combined with superposed tilting, inclining and lifting for free 6D positioning.
  • The movers travel at speeds of up to 2 m/s and can be positioned with a repeat positioning accuracy of ≤ 10 μm.
  • Different mover sizes are available for the optimization of load capacity and area requirement. 
  • Depending on the application, XPlanar can replace XY gantries or robots to reduce the mechanical complexity of a machine considerably.
  • The 360-deg. rotation functionality unlocks the possibilities for the inspection, alignment or centrifugation of products.
  • The Xplanar system is suitable for a range of industries, including food, pharmaceuticals and laboratory automation.
About the Author

Rehana Begg | Editor-in-Chief, Machine Design

As Machine Design’s content lead, Rehana Begg is tasked with elevating the voice of the design and multi-disciplinary engineer in the face of digital transformation and engineering innovation. Begg has more than 24 years of editorial experience and has spent the past decade in the trenches of industrial manufacturing, focusing on new technologies, manufacturing innovation and business. Her B2B career has taken her from corporate boardrooms to plant floors and underground mining stopes, covering everything from automation & IIoT, robotics, mechanical design and additive manufacturing to plant operations, maintenance, reliability and continuous improvement. Begg holds an MBA, a Master of Journalism degree, and a BA (Hons.) in Political Science. She is committed to lifelong learning and feeds her passion for innovation in publishing, transparent science and clear communication by attending relevant conferences and seminars/workshops. 

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