For decades, robots have been used for industrial packaging. This article attempts to shed some light on packaging robots, the tasks they perform, and the potential problems arising from their integration.
Packaging consists of 3 basic processes: Primary packaging, secondary packaging, and tertiary packaging.
Primary packaging refers to packaging in direct contact with a product. This includes pick and place applications. A variety of robots can be put into action for this task, for example an articulated robot, a SCARA robot or a Delta robot. The latter could be the best solution, especially if speed is the primary concern.
The next step is depanning, the process of removing products from their containers. Denesting takes place in quick succesion, using a different robot and removing empty packages from the stack. Finally, the depanning robot will place the items inside the package. Payload becomes an issue here. For this reason, articulated robots which can lift from 60 to 200 kgs (high payload, depending on the kind of product) should be applied for depanning and denesting.
Secondary packaging includes boxing, the procedure of grouping several individual items into cases or boxes. Collaborative robots are suitable in this aspect (typically up to 20kg payload with a few exceptions of more than 50kg), especially if they are synchronized (Multi robot planning).
Tertiary packaging implies stacking the finished boxes in pallets – so-called palletizing. In case the boxes are lightweight, a collaborative robot can be employed. Otherwise, it would be best to go with a high payload robot. As for the pallets themselves, they could potentially be carried by a mobile robot instead of an employee.
This brings us to the final topic: Warehousing. By placing mobile robots into a factory, your production becomes fully automated. Ergo, time efficiency, speed and a safer work environment.
Even if all those processes are controlled automatically, employees are still relevant. An operator who does not comprehend how the system works might eventually decrease productivity. Consequently, all end users should be trained in order to bring production capabilities to a maximum.
Things to consider before or during production
During primary packaging, it might be the case that the orientation of each product on the conveyor belt is differ- ent. This is solved by placing a camera on the production line performing pose estimation.
Some fragile products, like eggs, cannot be picked up by regular grippers. A solution to that can be the usage of vacuum grippers which adapt to the shape of the object by suction. Another option is soft robotic grippers.
Before integrating robots in a production line, a manufacturer ought to check whether the robot cell as a whole bears the CE marking. The way to obtain this marking is by following the Machinery Directive, which lists the basic health and safety requirements a machine operating within the EU market must follow. Moreover, a risk assess- ment must be performed to identify and reduce potential hazards.
Keeping your machine clean is crucial. Preventive maintenance plans along with worksheets are usually provided by the OEMs and they shall be applied from the start in regular daily, weekly, or monthly intervals. Those plans can include: Replacement of wear parts (components with a life expectancy of less than 2 years), machine lubrication, onsite visits, stocking of wear parts, operator training.
When the time comes for you to make an investment in robots, price does not have to be the sole factor. Technical support availability is also important. If machine parts are of high quality, the maintenance costs will probably be low. Are spare parts available at short notice, in case something goes wrong? All those factors compensate for the asking price.
Availability of materials at any time is not difficult to achieve under normal circumstances. However, in times of high demand, you would not want to see your production halt because of that. Keeping your supplier informed or buying from several suppliers make up a good strategy.
A glance into the future
Being able to keep up with the competitors is of utmost importance, therefore the need to adapt to new tech- nologies arises. One of them is Industry 4.0. Still considered a buzzword for some, its processes offer flexibility, connectivity and cost reduction. IoT, AI, Big Data but most importantly, Cyber Physical Systems (CPS).
An important feature of CPS is providing the customers with production progress so they can check whether their requirements are met, through all stages of production. This offers transparency so it can potentially pose as an excellent marketing approach. It goes without saying that Industry 4.0 applies in all industries, not just the packaging industry.