What a packaging ‘freshman’ saw and learned about robotics in one day.

by Elisabeth Cuneo, Associate Editor

This week’s ABB Robotics’ Technology Days held October 12-13 at their Robotics facility in Auburn Hills, MI, proved to be an informative experience. I arrived on the scene on the 13th and got to see palletizing and pick and place robots in action. I also learned from ABB’s behind-the-scenes experts, including a session on new processes and products held by Rick Tallian, business development manager, robotics.
The IRB360 Flex Picker was one topic of discussion. Tallian discussed this delta robot and the technologies used to develop sophisticated robotic machines. He spoke of technologies like vision guidance, robotics and conveyor tracking. The IRB360 can reach speeds of 90-100 products per minute. Just watching the robot in action was almost dizzying; a true testament to productivity!

However, there’s more to just stating the robot’s speed and expecting that speed with all applications. Tallian went into pick-and-place delays that can come from factors like the type of product and gripping technique (either vacuum or mechanical gripping). These things affect the speed of the robot and overall productivity. The point is no system is the same and results are not the same across-the-board. That statement is true for the world of palletizing, but more to come on that.

The IRB360 Flex Picker is available in a stainless steel option, which is easy to wash-down completely, an ideal and necessary sanitation feature for robots used in food packaging.

I also learned about the benefits of robotics versus manual labor that I hadn’t quite considered before. OSHA rightfully plays a key role in protecting human rights during labor (I advocate this of course but now see it also as a slowdown in productivity). Robots overcome these roadblocks as they have no maximum number of hours they can work before a break, no specific work conditions that a human could see as unfit and move much quicker than any human arm without the risk of injury. Tallian described for instance a pick-and-place application for frozen chicken, as an example, may run in a facility set at 49° F, not ideal for human workers, but the robot doesn’t mind a bit.

Learning robotic lingo

Of course manual labor versus robotic labor also was a topic of discussion while describing palletizing robots. One thing I was surprised I hadn’t thought of before is the heavy lifting associated with palletizing. Before robotics (and even now at facilities without robots) there are people stacking boxes, bags, cases, etc. onto the pallets. Imagine stacking bag upon 40-pound bag of dog food. It makes for hard labor. But the robot easily lifts, stacks and continually moves to stack pallets quicker (and painlessly). When discussing palletizing I learned words like work envelope, describing the range that the robot can adhere to; tier sheets, which are sheets in between layers of product to support stability; and full-layer palletizing referring to the robot lifting an entire layer of product, which most likely weighs too much for human lifting.

In another session at Technology Days, I learned about the RobotStudio Palletizing PowerPac beta version software that allows users to configure, simulate and program ABB robots and grippers for palletizing solutions in one step. It is used to show customers exactly what their machine will do, what it will look like and how fast it will move. Using the system, users can add in the various factors of the system including machine specs, products specs, palletizing pattern, conveyors and pallet style. All of these factors can be customized to show customers exactly what the robot will be capable of, with accurate speed detection. The fascinating thing about this software technology is that the software correlates to the real world and can be used to build, modify and execute an actual palletizing cell.

We all know that robots are cool, but now I also know more about their capabilities, benefits and all of the terminology that goes with them. I came to ABB Technology Days with a mythical high school diploma in robotics but left after just one day with my Bachelor’s. And as I stay in this business, I hope to eventually earn my Master’s, one interview, one tour, one story at a time.

ABB Robotics
248-391-9000; www.abb.com/product/us/9AAC910011.aspx