Line Tracking - How Does it Work?

Filed under: FANUC Line Tracking

After a little digging into my records, I found that nearly 60% of the projects I’ve been involved with over the last three years have used vision and/or line tracking. It seems like integrators and end-users tend to need more help when using these options. If they’re lucky, they may have been trained by an expert somewhere, but they’re often stuck with just a manual (if they’re that lucky) to try and fix some pretty obscure bugs. A thorough understanding of how each piece of the stack fits together really helps these projects go a lot more smoothly. This post is on line tracking, but I’ll cover vision and how it fits into line tracking in future posts.

If you are comfortable with UFRAMEs and UTOOLs, you should catch on to line tracking quickly. A tracking frame is really just a standard UFRAME that moves as an encoder signal changes. The most common use is tracking a conveyor belt. You mount an encoder to one of the axes or use a friction wheel to get feedback when the belt moves. You then sync up your tracking program with some external condition (maybe a part passes a photoeye), and the robot then moves along with the conveyor relative to that trigger.

All an encoder does is count as its axis turns. How do we convert differences in encoder counts to real-world distances? Enter the encoder scale.

Stop the conveyor and record the current encoder count. It’s just happens to be 0 (how convenient!). Now jog the conveyor exactly 1 foot. The encoder now reads 9144. So encoder counted 9144 counts over 1 foot of conveyor travel… sounds like an encoder scale to me. Let’s convert that number to metric since English units are garbage:


  9144 counts   1 ft    1 inch    30 counts
  ----------- * ----- * ------- = ---------
     1 ft       12 in   25.4 mm     1 mm

There you go, our encoder count changes 30 counts for every millimeter of conveyor travel. That’s pretty good resolution, and it allows the robot to track the conveyor very accurately.

“What about this tracking frame you keep talking about?”

You need to teach a frame for the conveyor belt. This frame will move in the X-direction along with the encoder at the rate of the encoder scale. It doesn’t really matter where your tracking frame origin is (although it’s typical to at least have the Z-component be at your conveyor height). It could be upstream of the robot, downstream, in the middle or to the side of the conveyor. Wherever you put it, make a mental note. Pretty much everything you do from here forward will be relative to that point, and it will help you sanity check yourself later.

FANUC lets you teach both the tracking frame and encoder scale in one shot. You’ll teach the origin point, then jog the conveyor some distance before touching that original point again downstream. You’ve just taught the tracking frame origin, the +X direction and the encoder scale. One more point to teach the +Y direction is all that’s needed to derive +Z.

We have a tracking frame and scaled encoder feedback, but our tracking frame will need a reference encoder value for any tracking to work. Let’s do an example.

We’ve created a tracking program, and the encoder currently reads 673429. We’ll use this as our trigger value. At this point anything we do will be relative to the tracking frame origin as it is right now. If we jogged the robot to that origin and recorded a point, the point would read (0, 0, 0). If you put an X on that spot, jogged the conveyor some distance and then moved touched up the X again, it would still be at (0, 0, 0). If you leave the robot where it is and jog the conveyor 100mm before touching up the point again, you’d be at (-100, 0, 0) since the robot is now exactly 100mm upstream of the origin.

You’ll probably use some sort of sensor to detect something that will be your reference. Let’s say you have a photoeye that’s exactly 200mm upstream of your tracking frame origin. When you go to edit your tracking program, it tells you that the part detect trigger may not be valid, so you set a new trigger. Jogging a part past your photoeye, the robot records the encoder count at the moment the sensor was flagged as the tracking schedule’s trigger value. Any positions you record at this point will be relative to the tracking frame origin as it was at that instant.

You jog the target to where the robot can reach it. (The target just happens to be a 100mm cube right in the middle of the conveyor, and you also taught the tracking frame in the middle of the conveyor.) If you teach a point at the center of the top cube face, what will the components be?

Hopefully you came up with (-250, 0, 100). Remember how everything is relative to the tracking frame origin? The sensor is 200mm upstream, and the front edge of the part is what triggered the sensor. The robot only needs to go 50mm further upstream to hit the middle of the part. Since the tracking frame origin is at the conveyor’s surface, the 100mm Z-component is simply the height of the target.

“What about boundaries?”

I’m glad you asked. Boundaries define where it’s safe and optimal for the robot to track the conveyor. The robot will not start tracking a target until the target moves past the upstream boundary. If the target or the robot TCP cross the downstream boundary, the robot will stop with an error. It’s your job to make sure the robot reaches the target and gets out of the tracking program before either cross that boundary. (Oh, and those boundaries are relative to the tracking frame origin too.)

It’s all about relationships

As in all things, it’s really the relationships that are important. If you understand what’s relative to what, it’s a lot easier to diagnose and fix issues. Here’s a quick cheat sheet:

  • The tracking frame origin is relative to the robot WORLD coordinate system.
  • The tracking frame origin moves relative to some trigger encoder value at the rate of your encoder scale.
  • Points used in tracking programs are relative to the tracking frame origin at the instant the trigger was set.
  • Boundaries are relative to the tracking frame origin.

I hope this helps. Let me know if you have any questions in the comments. Tune in next time for a crash course on robot vision, then we’ll tie things together in a follow-up post on visual line tracking.


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