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Article | April 30, 2004
An exclusive survey conducted on Packworld.com shows what manufacturers are thinking when it comes to implementing a robotic packaging solution at their company.
The year 2003 was a very good one for the robotics industry says Jeff Burnstein vp of marketing and public relations at the Robotic Industries Assn. That organization says North American robot orders in 2003 jumped 19% over 2001 and he expects the numbers will continue to grow throughout industry.
But what kind of year was it for robotics in the packaging arena? A recent survey conducted by Packaging World shows that robots are indeed becoming a useful weapon in manufacturers’ packaging arsenals.
“The automotive industry is still the largest end-user of robots” Burnstein says. “But we’re seeing strong growth in areas like food pharmaceuticals and consumer goods. These are areas where packaging is really important.”
Results from the PW survey confirm what Burnstein says about which manufacturing sectors are moving toward robotics. Of 407 respondents 29% were from a company in the food sector 17% from a pharmaceuticals company and 12% from consumer goods. A whopping 72% of the respondents said they have considered using robotics (Chart 1).
According to Burnstein one reason behind the push to add robotics in manufacturing operations isn’t as many might think to eliminate jobs and associated costs. Rather he says automation could actually help prevent companies from going overseas.
“We’re really seeing a focus on quality—the need to remain competitive” he says. “Manufacturers are finding that sending jobs offshore to lower-cost producers isn’t the answer. Investments in automation can help firms compete without going offshore. Companies are finding that they are better off investing in automation than they are shipping jobs to overseas companies.”
In fact survey results show that union resistance to robotic machinery purchases is relatively low. At 4% union resistance came in at the bottom of reasons not to purchase a robotic packaging solution (Chart 2).
“I think those results are really telling” Burnstein says. “In the early days of robotics there was more resistance from labor unions. Today you see that it’s negligible. I think it’s because the industry has shown that when companies become more competitive it’s because they’re making quality products. In turn they’re able to expand the number of jobs that are available. So the real threat isn’t automation. It’s companies saying that they’re going to ship manufacturing jobs to lower-wage countries. We think that automation can actually help them keep jobs here.”
The chief benefits
As for specific benefits gained by adopting robotic packaging solutions one that ranked high was reliability. As one survey respondent from a pharmaceutical company put it “Robots do not call in sick. When they’re well maintained they perform 100% of the time flawlessly. They can be validated. They can multifunction.”
“It’s all of those things” Burnstein adds. “But it’s also quality. If companies have to have recalls for instance because something was packaged incorrectly they’re better off investing in the automation to get the quality right up front.”
Survey respondents agreed. While 25% credited cost savings as the primary reason for choosing a robotic packaging solution 16% cited accuracy and 18% said it was the speed (Chart 3).
“Primary cost has been the driver” one respondent from a major pharmaceutical company said. “Added benefits definitely include accuracy over a long period of time. Robots also provide an opportunity for faster changeovers.”
“Robotics provide increased accuracy and therefore a gain in yield which leads to better output with less labor” another respondent from a food manufacturer replied. “We’ve reduced the manual labor and consequently reduced the ergonomic risk. This is a considerable cost saving for the operation.”
The majority of respondents indicated that they use or would be interested in using robotics for palletizing with 35% of respondents selecting this as their preferred use (Chart 4). Pick-and-place technology came in second with 30% of all respondents chiming in and case loading landed in third with 25% of the 432 respondents. Some who completed the survey indicated that they could see robotics used in case forming and box erection capacities as well.
So why not?
As with any major machinery purchase there are downsides as well as upsides to consider when contemplating a robotics purchase some respondents say.
“We custom manufacture and have too many changeovers to use robotics” one survey respondent said. Another cited management reluctance at trying new technology. Many said robotics simply isn’t practical in their particular business.
“The practicality of robotics is kind of a historic issue” Burnstein says. “There’s this perception or there has been this perception out there for a long time that robots are primarily for big companies. And that if you’re small a robot may not be a good choice because it’s expensive or hard to use or it has some other negative performance characteristic. We don’t believe that’s the case and we’ve spent a lot of time trying to convince people that robots are right for small companies that they’re not all that complex that the industry has developed simple solutions that they’re not that expensive.”
Despite the efforts made survey respondents still say the biggest deterrent against the purchase of a robotic packaging system is cost (Chart 2). Other factors include complexity which came in second with 17% of respondents.
“Simply put when you look at the cost of automating versus other costs robots are actually quite cost effective” Burnstein says. “That’s the message that we try to put out there and there’s still a ways to go obviously. Not only in this industry but in others I’m sure.”
For information on this survey's methodology see: packworld.com/go/w121
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