Technology improvements advance the leading edge for robotics in food and beverage facilities.
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Robots have long been promoted as the ideal, tirelessly accurate worker for
industrial and packaging operations. Yet like any worker, they are not perfect,
with the main drawbacks in the past related to speed, payload capability and
ease of use to go along with their expense. However, improvements in robotics
technologies for packaging applications have gone a long way toward making
robots stronger, faster and nimbler, all of which contribute to enhancing their
Thus it comes as no surprise that sales of robotic systems are on the rise in
record-breaking fashion. The industry’s trade group, theRobotic Industries
Association(www.robotics.org), reports that North American robotics companies sold more
robots in 2011 than ever before. A total of 19,337 robots valued at $1.17
billion were sold to companies in North America, beating the previous record of
18,228 robots sold in 2005. While these figures are boosted by general growth
including in the auto industry and do not break out packaging, those presumably
comprise a notable portion of “material handling” installations that grew 30%
last year, according to the RIA report.
“Robots today are performing tasks at much faster rates than five years
states Bob Rochelle, food and packaging industry specialist,Stäubli Corp. (www.staublirobotics.com). “With
recent advances in both robot and
vision system technology, robots can respond to signals and make
much faster rates.”
Stephane Marceau, product director,Premier Tech, Industrial Equipment Group -
believes that robotics have been one of the most important recent
packaging, especially in tasks such as picking, packing and
palletizing. “Their high flexibility, reliability and
speed, are some of the justifications to support this trend,” he says.
to the research in robotics and the development of innovative
robots can handle a variety of products with different shapes and
Marceau feels that robots have an advantage in palletizing versus hard
automation, noting that robots typically need less space, can adapt
to accommodate different pallet patterns and product types and can
simultaneously handle multiple infeeds of different product, including
cases, pails and bottles. He also points out that robotic systems are
less complex mechanically than conventional equipment, thus require
maintenance and are less likely to have failures. “Robotic equipment
usually work several thousands of hours before failure,” he adds.
Dean Elkins, senior general manager,Motoman (www.motoman.com), cites the following
advances as expanding the use of
robots in packaging:
• Speed and payload improvements in picking robots;
• Payload increases in palletizing robots;
• Capacity increases in conveyor tracking;
• Greater simplicity in vision applications.
“Higher payloads allows robots to be used in layer- forming
palletizing that were more readily accomplished with traditional
the past,” he adds. “Delta-style robots are demonstrating increased
payload allowing for the faster picking and packaging of products in
and secondary packaging applications. Vision-based conveyor tracking
scheduling software makes programming tasks far more efficient than in
“The food and beverage packaging market
continues to embrace ‘unified control’ strategies that allow robots to
programmed [similarly] as programmable logic controllers (PLCs),”
“This can [permit] a lower cost of integration of a robot system and a
investment in retraining of employees leading to a lower cost of
the automation investment.”
Earl Wohlrab, manager of
Robotic Integration atIntelligrated
(www.intelligrated.com), points to two
exciting robotic-based technologies in material handling that have made
great strides over the the 12 to 18 months. The first-and with the
greatest impact in the near term-is for the integration of PLC-based
controls into the robotics-basedhybridpalletizing market.
“A hybrid palletizer merges the
best of both worlds by integrating the infinite pattern forming
flexibility of an articulated arm robot with the solid and proven
layer-handling capabilities of a conventional palletizer,” explains
Wohlrab. “Combining these features with a universally accepted control
platform like the PLC will allow packaging professionals to push
innovation while also allowing the technicians and engineers on the
plant floor the peace of mind that comes with field proven
David Peters, CEO,Universal
who also sees software improvements as crucial for this market, views
impending release of Control System Software as significant. “This will
robots to be reprogrammed for completely different jobs in minutes
hours. Packagers can use robots for short-run items as well as increase
number of jobs a robot can accomplish from shift to shift,” he
multifunctional robot with minimal fixturing will increase efficiencies
improve return-on-investment (ROI).”
Dick Motley, senior account manager, North America distribution,FANUC Robotics
has seen dramatic advances in specialized integrator expertise,
simulation, enhanced safety, and better communication/integration with
machine platforms. These improvements push speeds and overall
forward toward “more sophisticated vision processing-even beyond the
spectrum that the eye can see-and higher payloads such as for
beverage palletizing,” he says.
Motley is one of several robotics experts who pointed specifically to
of-and improvement in-machine vision systems that permit robotics
“see” better and perform more robustly.
another who believes that advances in vision technology complement the
advances on the machinery side. “A new breed of vision software
products has greatly reduced the cost of entry into vision-guided
robotic solutions,” he says. “These new software tools allow for the
use of web cams at the entry point. The software tools themselves have
been designed to allow for easier operation. All this combines to allow
for more innovative solutions.”
“The role of vision is becoming common in more and more robotic
offers Marceau. “This provides higher flexibility and allows multiple
applications that might have not have been considered before.
For example, we have been using this
technology for depalletizing imperfectly stacked bags and kegs. Vision
can be used for applications requiring recognition of products that
shape or are randomly oriented.”
A number of packaging machinery vendors are employing robots in their
operations at various points on production lines includingBradman Lake(www.bradmanlake.com).
The company’s Nick Bishop, VP sales and marketing, identifies these
capabilities that demonstrate robots’ utility along the entire
• The identification and detecting of unwrapped product and picking and
it into the primary packaging;
• Automatic collating and loading those primary packages into a
package such as carton or film multipack;
• Automatically collating and loading those secondary packages into
trays, or heat shrink / stretch wrapped bundles for
More examples can be found in the sidebar below.
Rick Tallian,ABB Robotics’
(www.abb.com) business development manager
for consumer industries in
the U.S., cites the following developments as key drivers in robotic
technologies and deployment:
• Robot guidance from external sensors such as vision systems including
scanners, color and 3D machine vision systems;
• Ease of use technology to eliminate complex programming of
• Accurate robotic simulation of solutions eliminates risk and project
shortfalls prior to designing and building
• Hygienically designed robots that are
able to handle raw, unpackaged product.
That last point is what several of the experts selected as a major
opens up new portions of production lines to these automated systems.
Robots at home in processing and primary packaging
“Five years ago we saw robots being bagged when it came time for
observes Clay Cooper,Applied
Robotics’ (www.appliedrobotics.com) corporate
development manager - food and
packaging. “Today, many robot manufactures have run the gauntlet of
acceptance [standards]” for caustic and high-pressure washdown.
That includes performing tasks in the raw food handling
applications. “These robots are at home both in the
processing area and in primary packaging where raw meat, poultry,
cheese is handled and washdown of all equipment, including robots, is
required,” Stäubli’s Rochelle points out.
Cooper attributes this breakthrough capability to improved end-of arm
tooling. “Without reliable tooling, a robot is nothing
more than a motion-based device without a way to pick, grip and place
previously [done manually].”
Cooper claims that gripper technology has evolved with the need to
human manipulation and its associated costs. “Five years ago vacuum
mechanical grippers lacked the ability to be light, yet robust enough
he says. “Now there are a variety of grippers to handle anything from
bread to raw chicken-with no end in sight to [gripper]
Robots have not only moved into raw handling environments, they are
gently handling more fragile formats. David Peters of Universal
out that robots have moved from handling rigid packaging formats like
corrugated cases into more challenging tasks for flexible packaging,
one of the hottest formats in all of packaging.
“Thanks to advances in software that use real-time sensor input to
positioning, industrial robots have gained flexibility that enables the
to function in dynamic environments where the product is randomly
he says. “The implications of flexible automation for the food and
industry are significant.”
He cites applications where various size bags made of different
be metered out for order fulfillment. Avoiding deformation of the bags
sensing systems that can perceive the overall shape of the bag and
one bag from another sufficiently to execute order filling. Traditional
and control systems were isolated from one another, required fixed
locations and/or clear labeling for object recognition in order to
automatically move product. “Today’s high-speed
communication protocols couple sensing and control, enabling the robots
one bag in a sea of bags, grasp it, and drop it in a box quickly and
accurately,” he concludes.
It’s in snack foods where trends toward smaller bag sizes run at high
and with flavor changeovers provide a ready environment for these
introduced the Robotic Delta VPP case packer more than a year
ago. The system is designed to handle large to
small bag sizes, large to small case sizes, operating speeds of 120
minute and most importantly – automatic changeover. BPA’s
Rocco Fucetola, northeast regional
sales manager, says this permits the end user to literally take someone
street and, directed only by a single-page changeover procedure, change
machine over and start it up. Because
the system automatically performs the changeover, there are no minute
requires by a person or operator. The
start-up curve is eliminated, allowing them to realize normal
efficiencies right away.
Also, the portions of the system not related to the robotic system are
designed with automatic changeover in mind.
The typical changeparts have been replaced with a programmable
recipe-based adjustment and without dedicated and often expensive
Certainly automation advancements of all kinds drive packaging
“While the manual movement of pallets, totes and cartons certainly
disappear soon, there is a trend toward ever-increasing levels of
offers Derek Rickard, distribution systems manager atRMT Robotics (www.rmtrobotics.com).
“SKU proliferation, shrinking warehouse space and the demand for
route stop delivery are several of the main challenges for warehouses.
challenges have driven demand for automation and the development of
integrated robotic case and layer order picking systems with dynamic
effectors that can handle diverse packaging sizes. These
robotic solutions provide higher
efficiency, 100 percent accuracy, scalable design, space savings and
percent product traceability.”
This provides packagers notably better robotics options than were
even five years ago.
“It is very important that packagers know their needs very well before
new equipment and to achieve their production goals,” says Premier
Marceau. “People sometimes think that their production rate is not high
to have a robotic case packer or a robotic palletizer. However, when
packagers need to handle more than one product, robotics become very
interesting because they can be easily adapted to handle packages of
sizes and shapes. Robotics can help packagers to rethink their
process and gain a competitive edge.”
What will 2012 hold for robotics? While
the RIA does not make robotics sales forecasts, president Jeff
believes that if the economy remains strong, it will be another good
the robotics industry.
“Companies in every industry are now recognizing more than ever before
robotics provide unique benefits in terms of
improved quality, productivity, flexibility, time to market and overall
cost savings,” he says. “We believe the
future for robotics is very bright.”
Robots demonstrate their mettle
Examples of recent robotic installations as well as new capabilities.
• A recent installation of three integrated packaging lines was
Bradman Lake Inc. to a well-known, multinational producer of nutritional bars.
It illustrated the importance of integrating new robotic techniques to produce
a completely automatic, integrated primary, secondary, and end-of-line
machinery. In this installation, Bradman Lake used robotics to automatically
transfer wrapped products from the primary wrap stage through secondary
packaging and into final end-of-line case packing ready for palletizing,
creating labor cost reduction, increased line efficiencies and output capacity.
• Premier Tech launched a modular robotic innovation in the field of bag
packaging and it has a name: ANDY. It consists of a robot that transfers bags
between the filling spout and the closing device of an open-mouth bagger, which
completes the automation of a semi-automatic bagger for gusseted and
pillow-type formats at rates to 20 bags per minute. The robotic arrangement is
said to achieve higher production rates and reduce the risk of accidents.
• ABB Robotics’ Indexed Conveyor Tracking allows the ABB IRB 360 delta robot to
accurately perform picking or placing operations on indexing conveyors at rates
up to 450 indexes per minute. Designed to reduce the cost and complexity of high-speed
carton loading, this application package allows the IRB 360 to perform many
other pick-and place operations on indexing packaging machine infeeds,
improving system throughput up to 50%.
• Applied Robotics’ Clay Cooper recently viewed what he considered an exemplary
installation of packaging a wrapped product. To achieve an acceptable ROI, an
end-of-line twin robot case packing system supplied by Motoman was developed.
To achieve the required output, Motoman decided that two heads were better than
one so they employed two robots working in concert. “It is impressive, even
when you know the technological reasons why it works,” discloses Cooper. “To
watch twin robots working together to case pack a product without supervision
is impressive. Their parents would be proud.”