Superconductors are opening up possibilities for entirely new, previously unthinkable applications in automation technology. They allow contact-free, frictionless manipulation of objects and bear great potentials for process automation: Their dust- and abrasion-free operation is ideal for the protective transport of workpieces in highly clean environments, machines can be easily cleaned and objects can even be moved from behind walls. At the SPS IPC Drives 2015 trade fair, Festo is showcasing the SupraCarrier – an innovative application concept for superconductor technology.
Superconductors are materials which below a certain temperature can “freeze” the field of a permanent magnet at a predefined distance and can thus hold it in suspension. The resulting air gap remains stable in any spatial position. By this means, objects can be stored contact-free without any control technology and be moved with minimal expenditure of energy. “There are already various solutions for storing and moving objects without contact. But only with superconductivity is it possible at the same time to execute a rotation through 360° in any spatial direction – without the need for intricate control technology,” explains Georg Berner, Head of Strategic Corporate Development, Group Holding Festo.
Superconducting systems are suitable for bigger loads and can even work through walls and in all spatial planes across their definable hover gap. This enables objects to be handled in protected and enclosed spaces or through cladding. Areas prone to contamination or which are difficult to clean can thus be protected using smooth and easy-to-clean surfaces. If non-magnetic substances penetrate the bearing, the bearing and guiding function is not impaired. This also allows use in particularly highly contaminated areas.
Storing and moving objects on suspended rollers
In the Future Concept SupraCarrier two cryostats with superconductors are mounted on an electrical axis, above each of which two magnetic transport rollers are held in suspension. A flat workpiece carrier rests on the rollers. The axis moves the superconductor elements horizontally. Between these and the suspended rollers is a cover plate with openings through which the rollers are retracted when the cryostats are lowered; the workpiece carrier then lies on top of the cover plate.
Suspended transport rollers such as these could be used to move flat, non-ferromagnetic products of all sizes. The conveyor unit does not require lubricants and is very easy to clean – the cover plate protects the automation modules from soiling, and the passive rollers can be easily removed and be cleaned separately from the system either chemically or by means of heat. Superconductor technology also has further positive characteristics: the application is almost maintenance-free and highly durable; it operates silently and the air gap has an insulating effect.
Applications for production of the future
After several years of intensive research work, Festo is cooperating with partners and customers to examine their ideas for specific applications. “We are now not merely showing impressive levitation effects and the opportunities offered by superconductor technology, but are actively discussing their potential together with the automation industry. We are currently working towards initiating our first pilot projects,” said Georg Berner.