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Robot system improves analysis

In this project, the development of a robotic system has resulted in the complete automation of the preparation and handling of small samples of minerals for analysis by X-ray spectrometry. Steel, cement and other companies can now produce a steady flow of samples without the factor of human error that can lead to inconsistent or poor samples. The ability to supply a sample every six minutes also allows more regular monitoring of production.
The first two commercial IAX units have been supplied to a steel company and to a cement plant. The system is used with the Perl'X sample preparation system which was developed under three steel industry research and development contracts from the European Commission.

The use of X-ray fluorescence for the analysis of samples of metal during production is commonplace in Europe's steel industry. The samples can be in the form of tablets of pressed material, although the quality of the samples is often poor. In contrast, the Perl'X system, manufactured for more than 10 years by Soled Industries of France, uses an induction furnace to melt flux around samples to form solid fused beads that can be analysed. Perl'X produces consistent samples which are stable enough to be stored for repeat measurements or for recalibration of the system.
The original idea for Perl'X came from the French iron and steel research organisation IRSID. The equipment was developed by Soled Industries of France into a commercial product with the financial support of three contracts from the European Union's steel industry research and development programme, CECA-Acier. Soled is now developing the fourth generation of Perl'X. Although Perl'X was aimed originally at the steel industry, X-ray fluorescence analysis is also used widely in industries such as cement manufacturing and mining.

Automation for accuracy and speed

The increasing commercial pressures on steel, cement and other industries has led to a further CECA-Acier contract awarded to Soled for the development of a robotic system for Perl'X, known as Integrated Automatic Perl'X (IAX). The aim was to fully automate the production and analysis of samples, partly to eliminate inconsistencies and errors that can occur when laboratory staff carry out steps such as weighing of samples and cleaning the melting crucibles. Speed is also important. In a steel works, for example, every minute spent waiting for steel slag to be analysed before adjustments can be made to the production processes means a large and expensive waste of heat. Induction heating can produce fused beads within about 4 minutes, compared with 8-9 minutes needed by a gas burner and 15-20 minutes needed by muffle furnaces in the cement industry.
The IAX robotic system has been developed by Soled as an additional option for Perl'X users. Soled recently signed a distribution contract for IAX with Philips Analytical, which already distributes Perl'X.

Step-by-step approach

The production of a fused bead by Perl'X involves a series of clear steps, including the weighing of the sample and of the flux, the placing of the materials in a platinum crucible and the positioning of the crucible for melting at 1,000-1,100C. The melting is carried out typically in three steps. A sample normally weighs 6,000-7,000 mg, and must be weighed with an accuracy of 5 mg.
The IAX robotic system is based on a Perl'X and includes stations for bead extraction, weighing, washing of crucibles and bead storage and handling. Material is moved between the stations by an industrial robot produced by the company ABB. The arrangement of the installation is adjustable because the robot is mounted on a transfer rail that can be between 1 m and 10 m long, depending on local conditions.

Distributed control system

The robot has its own programming system to control its movements between the stations. Soled found it possible to build an overall control system using electronics that had already been proven in Perl'X. This reduces the number of components and simplifies the stocking of spares. Each IAX station has its own microprocessor, which allows the use of a simpler central supervisory control and makes a fault in any one station less disastrous, as well as allowing the installation of just some of the stages. The central control system is based on a Windows interface.
The IAX weighing station includes a Sartorius BA 210 S balance modified for easy access by a robot, and a sample delivery unit. There are also up to three flux delivery hoppers with a hopper that can hold 1.5 kg of material to allow automatic operation for more than 8 hours. There is also a unit for mixing flux and sample material.
The washing station for the platinum crucibles in which the flux and sample are melted together includes a cleaning pool, a rinsing pool, a drying stage and a store for crucibles. The IAX's storage station has carriers for tubes containing samples, for beads, for crucibles, and for cassettes that contain recalibration samples. There is also a handling unit for the cassettes. The operation of the storage station can be tailored to the user's need. For example, samples that do not have to be analysed urgently can be produced in batches, sealed cassettes can be used for measurement, and ferro-alloys can be weighed manually.

Steady flow of samples

A trial of the robotic system showed a positioning repeatability better than 0.1 mm compared with the 1 mm required. The system produced a dilution of sample of 11.9992 with a variation of 0.0006, compared with a theoretical figure of 12, within 132.85 seconds with a variation of 4.84 seconds. It takes about 40 minutes for a sample to emerge from the system as a bead, although the capacity of the system allows the production of a sample each 6 minutes. This capacity makes the system most economic for laboratories that work around the clock.
The first two units of the robotic system have been supplied to Intermoselle, a Clinker Plant in Luxembourg and to the Eko Stahl steel company in Germany, a member of Dickerhoff Cement Group. Although Perl'X was developed originally for the steel industry, the increasing rationalisation of Europe's steel sector means a relatively small market for the robot system. As a result, the largest market for the IAX system is likely to be in the cement industry for the control of production. There is also expected to be a healthy market in the mining and geology sectors.


Project Title:  
Automation of analytical system.

Industrial and Materials Technologies (BRITE-EURAM/CRAFT/SMT)

Contract Reference: ECSC 7210-ZZ-606

Cordis DatabaseFor more information on this project,
go to the CORDIS Database Record