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 cost justification.
Thus it comes as no surprise that sales of robotic systems are on the rise in record-breaking fashion. The industry’s trade group, the Robotic 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 ago,” 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 decisions at much faster rates.”
Stephane Marceau, product director, Premier Tech, Industrial Equipment Group - Americas (www.premiertechieg.com), believes that robotics have been one of the most important recent trends in 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. “Thanks to the research in robotics and the development of innovative end-of-arm tools, robots can handle a variety of products with different shapes and sizes.”
Marceau feels that robots have an advantage in palletizing versus hard automation, noting that robots typically need less space, can adapt more easily to accommodate different pallet patterns and product types and can simultaneously handle multiple infeeds of different product, including bags, cases, pails and bottles. He also points out that robotic systems are usually less complex mechanically than conventional equipment, thus require less maintenance and are less likely to have failures. “Robotic equipment can 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 applications in palletizing that were more readily accomplished with traditional palletizers in the past,” he adds. “Delta-style robots are demonstrating increased speed and payload allowing for the faster picking and packaging of products in primary and secondary packaging applications. Vision-based conveyor tracking and scheduling software makes programming tasks far more efficient than in the past.
“The food and beverage packaging market continues to embrace ‘unified control’ strategies that allow robots to be programmed [similarly] as programmable logic controllers (PLCs),” Elkins continues. “This can [permit] a lower cost of integration of a robot system and a lesser investment in retraining of employees leading to a lower cost of ownership for the automation investment.”
Earl Wohlrab, manager of Robotic Integration at Intelligrated (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-based hybrid palletizing 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 technology.”
David Peters, CEO, Universal Robotics, Inc. (www.universalrobotics.com), who also sees software improvements as crucial for this market, views the impending release of Control System Software as significant. “This will enable robots to be reprogrammed for completely different jobs in minutes rather than hours. Packagers can use robots for short-run items as well as increase the number of jobs a robot can accomplish from shift to shift,” he explains. “This multifunctional robot with minimal fixturing will increase efficiencies and improve return-on-investment (ROI).”
Dick Motley, senior account manager, North America distribution, FANUC Robotics (www.fanucrobotics.com) has seen dramatic advances in specialized integrator expertise, advanced simulation, enhanced safety, and better communication/integration with other machine platforms. These improvements push speeds and overall capabilities forward toward “more sophisticated vision processing-even beyond the visible spectrum that the eye can see-and higher payloads such as for full-layer beverage palletizing,” he says.
Motley is one of several robotics experts who pointed specifically to the role of-and improvement in-machine vision systems that permit robotics systems to “see” better and perform more robustly.
Wohlrab is 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 applications,” 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 systems can be used for applications requiring recognition of products that vary in shape or are randomly oriented.”
A number of packaging machinery vendors are employing robots in their machinery operations at various points on production lines including Bradman Lake (www.bradmanlake.com). The company’s Nick Bishop, VP sales and marketing, identifies these current capabilities that demonstrate robots’ utility along the entire packaging line:
• The identification and detecting of unwrapped product and picking and placing it into the primary packaging;
• Automatic collating and loading those primary packages into a secondary package such as carton or film multipack;
• Automatically collating and loading those secondary packages into cases, trays, or heat shrink / stretch wrapped bundles for palletization.
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 line scanners, color and 3D machine vision systems;
• Ease of use technology to eliminate complex programming of robots;
• Accurate robotic simulation of solutions eliminates risk and project shortfalls prior to designing and building equipment;
• Hygienically designed robots that are able to handle raw, unpackaged product.
That last point is what several of the experts selected as a major driver that 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 sanitization,” observes Clay Cooper, Applied Robotics’ (www.appliedrobotics.com) corporate development manager - food and packaging. “Today, many robot manufactures have run the gauntlet of USDA 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, seafood or 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 what was previously [done manually].”
Cooper claims that gripper technology has evolved with the need to eliminate human manipulation and its associated costs. “Five years ago vacuum cups and mechanical grippers lacked the ability to be light, yet robust enough to last,” he says. “Now there are a variety of grippers to handle anything from frozen bread to raw chicken-with no end in sight to [gripper] innovation.”
Robots have not only moved into raw handling environments, they are capable of gently handling more fragile formats. David Peters of Universal Robotics points out that robots have moved from handling rigid packaging formats like corrugated cases into more challenging tasks for flexible packaging, certainly one of the hottest formats in all of packaging. “Thanks to advances in software that use real-time sensor input to update positioning, industrial robots have gained flexibility that enables the machine to function in dynamic environments where the product is randomly positioned,” he says. “The implications of flexible automation for the food and beverage industry are significant.”
He cites applications where various size bags made of different materials must be metered out for order fulfillment. Avoiding deformation of the bags requires sensing systems that can perceive the overall shape of the bag and recognize one bag from another sufficiently to execute order filling. Traditional sensing and control systems were isolated from one another, required fixed product 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 to find 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 volumes and with flavor changeovers provide a ready environment for these nimbler, new-age robotics. BluePrint Automation (BPA, www.bpa-flexolutions.com) 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 bags per minute and most importantly – automatic changeover. BPA’s Rocco Fucetola, northeast regional sales manager, says this permits the end user to literally take someone off the street and, directed only by a single-page changeover procedure, change the machine over and start it up. Because the system automatically performs the changeover, there are no minute changes requires by a person or operator. The start-up curve is eliminated, allowing them to realize normal production efficiencies right away.
Also, the portions of the system not related to the robotic system are also designed with automatic changeover in mind. The typical changeparts have been replaced with a programmable recipe-based adjustment and without dedicated and often expensive changeparts, adds Fucetola.
Certainly automation advancements of all kinds drive packaging technology.
“While the manual movement of pallets, totes and cartons certainly won’t disappear soon, there is a trend toward ever-increasing levels of automation,” offers Derek Rickard, distribution systems manager at RMT Robotics (www.rmtrobotics.com). “SKU proliferation, shrinking warehouse space and the demand for just-in-time route stop delivery are several of the main challenges for warehouses. These challenges have driven demand for automation and the development of fully integrated robotic case and layer order picking systems with dynamic end effectors that can handle diverse packaging sizes. These robotic solutions provide higher efficiency, 100 percent accuracy, scalable design, space savings and 100 percent product traceability.”
This provides packagers notably better robotics options than were available even five years ago.
“It is very important that packagers know their needs very well before buying new equipment and to achieve their production goals,” says Premier Tech’s Marceau. “People sometimes think that their production rate is not high enough to have a robotic case packer or a robotic palletizer. However, when those packagers need to handle more than one product, robotics become very interesting because they can be easily adapted to handle packages of different sizes and shapes. Robotics can help packagers to rethink their packaging process and gain a competitive edge.”
What will 2012 hold for robotics? While the RIA does not make robotics sales forecasts, president Jeff Burnstein believes that if the economy remains strong, it will be another good year for the robotics industry.
“Companies in every industry are now recognizing more than ever before that 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 supplied by 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.”