Pick and Place Robots: The Gateway to Faster Production Time & Output

28 October 2021
Pick and place robotics for assembly line automation
Catherine Bernier
Content Manager
,
Content for Cobot

Pick and place robots are the key to increased output and faster production time. Learn how they can reduce costs, human error, and production bottlenecks.

The term pick and place refers to any application where a part is picked up in one location, moved, and placed in another. It is most associated with packaging and palletizing applications. This can be a critical task in high-volume manufacturing processes. But when and how should you do it? 

In this article you will learn:

  • Which industries use pick and place robots?
  • When should you automate your pick and place process?
  • Which robots can perform pick and place applications?
  • A word on end effectors
  • Cost

Which Industries use Pick and Place Robots?

Pick and place applications are commonly found in a variety of manufacturing facilities. It is a fundamental automation task. This is to say even complicated tasks such as assembly, packaging, palletizing, etc. include pick and place as a subtask. Because of this, you will find pick and place robots in almost any industry. Common industries include:

  • Packaging
  • Food and beverage
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Retail
  • Contract manufacturing
  • Plastics
  • Automotive

Modern manufacturing environments leverage pick and place technology in many applications. Examples include cartesian robots filling medicine vials and delta robots case packing baby wipes. While these tasks can be scaled up to be very complex, they all require pick and place ability. It is a necessary component of many industrial applications. Tasks that include pick and place include:

  • Assembly
  • Automated warehousing
  • Palletizing
  • Case packing
  • Separation
  • Filling

Assembly tasks require parts to be picked from bins and placed in the proper location on the product. Automated warehouses require robots to pick and place products. The robot must first move to the position of the product. At this point, it picks the product from the shelf or bin. This product is then placed in a staging area. Palletizing and case packing are very similar from a pick and place perspective. But both require this fundamental ability to complete this task. It is likely that some tasks in your facility have a pick and place component.

When Should You Automate Your Pick and Place Process? 

pick-place-robot-example

 

Many pick and place tasks occur on assembly or packaging lines. Often this ends up being a bottleneck when it is performed manually. Large gains in throughput and efficiency can be realized by automating here. So, what kind of things should be red flags to look for automation?

  • There is a need to increase throughput or bottleneck is present
  • You are looking for cost reductions
  • Safety concerns with the manual process
  • There are quality control issues 

Throughput

Robots are simply faster than average human operators. This means when throughput becomes a concern, automation should be a primary consideration. This is especially the case when a manual process creates a bottleneck. Bottlenecks are created when one part of a process slows down the potential rate of the entire process. On an assembly line, for example, this means the conveyor might be slowed down to compensate for their assembly speed downstream. Faster assembly means the conveyor can be sped up. This leads to more parts per minute, hour, or day. Higher throughput means more revenue for you and your facility.

Throughput concerns alone aren’t always an immediate green light to automate. Certain situations may make automation unnecessary or even worse for your process. For example, consider a process with an incredibly difficult to automate subtask. A classic example is something that requires fine motor control or “feel”. Automating a process like this could give you a better volume. But you will likely lose part quality and consistency you get with manual operation. A robot project in this scenario would struggle to succeed. 

Cost Reductions

Many manufacturers look to automate when cost reductions are necessary. Automation projects carry a hefty up-front price tag. However, they have immense returns on investment. Operators must be paid year-round. The ideal robot project reaches net ROI on a 12–18-month timeline. After this point, the investment is fully paid off and minor maintenance costs will keep this money-making machine working for a long time. Pick and place tasks are often simple and mundane. Paying a human operator to perform this task often isn’t the optimal solution. Many facilities find they can repurpose this displaced labor in areas that are difficult to or can’t be automated.

It is important to have a grasp of the ROI picture before you make any investments. If a robot is deployed in a task where it doesn’t have a significant advantage over human operators, then the ROI number becomes hard to reach. Additionally, if a robot is poorly supported and local technicians aren’t trained to troubleshoot, service calls can be very expensive. Not to mention the added cost of downtime. Simply replacing operators with robots can end up costly in the wrong circumstances. 

Safety

Sometimes processes must be automated due to safety concerns. With pick and place tasks, this is often because the components are large or heavy. These types of components can lead to soft tissue injuries that can lead to long-term complications for workers. These injuries can be costly to manufacturers. Costs lie in both potential bills and fees as well as the lost revenue from labor shortages. Automating these tasks with robots removes a huge part of the safety risk for human workers.

Quality Control Issues

Failed or rejected parts are wasted revenue for manufacturers. Sometimes these products can be reworked or fixed. But often failed or rejected parts are simply scrapped. If these failed parts are caused by human error, automation can be a solution. Robots are precise and highly repeatable. This means they are very exact in their movements. They will perform the same task the same way every time. They don’t become fatigued leading to slower and lesser quality work like human operators. There isn’t a ramp-up period where they need to learn their task either. Robots increase the consistency of quality in your application. This leads to efficiency gains with fewer scrap and field failures.

Which Robots Can Perform Pick and Place Applications?

The robots that can perform pick and place tasks are as varied as the industries that deploy them. Some more common examples include:

  • Six-axis robots (collaborative and non-collaborative)
  • Delta
  • SCARA
  • Cartesian

Since it is a fundamental application, most robots can perform pick and place tasks. However, the bigger question for you is which one is right for your application. This question is more difficult to answer without knowing more details. Luckily, we have a resource for you. Our network of independent advisors can assist you in making the right choice based on your specific requirements. We can help you get connected and begin discussing if and how automation is right for you. 

A Word on End Effectors

pick-place-robot-end-effector

 

It is important to note the role of end effectors in these applications. End effectors are the piece at the end of the robot arm that manipulates the part in space. Often, custom end effectors are made specific to the application. Sometimes this can be a suction cup end effector. Other times it can be a gripper or electromagnet. In any case, this should be a focused discussion during the planning stage of your project. Picking the right end-effector is critical to maximizing the gains from your investment. The wrong end effector can reduce the output you gain from automating the task. Be sure to discuss this in detail with your consultant or integrator.

About the Cost

How much can you expect to pay for your pick and place robot? This is a difficult question to answer since it varies widely based on the application. Simple and small applications can be in the $10,000 USD range. Large and complex applications, however, can cost well over $100,000 USD. It is important to get with an advisor early on to understand rough estimates for your project. Our quoting tool can help you get started. We can get you connected with suppliers and help you start receiving quotes for your project.

The important thing to keep in mind is the overall return, not just the sticker price. For example, say you are considering a $250,000 USD robot project for your packaging line. Depending on your size, this could be a huge investment. However, imagine the ROI calculation shows this project will pay for itself in 12 months. After that first year, the robot has paid for itself and is now leading to much greater for your facility. You can check out our investment calculator here to begin creating a budget and estimate ROI for your project.