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The wrap-up: She, robot

A surprisingly humanoid robot works at Pack Expo Las Vegas.

Visionary writers like Isaac Asimov, creator of the science fiction classic I, Robot, have written about them for decades. And robots have been the focus of popular culture for nearly as long, with monikers from Robby to R2D2 to Bishop.

Now they can be found working on more and more packaging lines. Typically, these are large, industrial-looking systems doing end-of line operations such as palletizing, though the speedy delta-style robots that resemble an "upside-down spider" are becoming more common for smaller pick-and-place applications.

Robots are proliferating, including at Pack Expo Las Vegas, where they could be seen in a growing number of booth demonstrations compared to previous shows.

They were faster and nimbler than ever, including at the Motoman booth, where two robotic systems were on display. One was a more conventional-style case palletizing robot, though it was outfitted with rotary end effectors that boost speed and efficiency.

It was an impressive demonstration of robotic automation applied to packaging functions.

Wait, there's more…

Then, I was led by Motoman's senior general manager Dean Elkins to the second robotic system on display: the 15-axis DIA(Dual Individual Arm)10 robot (shown in image at left), which operates with human-like movement.

Working on a small conveyor line where it was manipulating containers, this second robot—with a torso and two servo-driven arms—also had a distinctly human shape. It was an unexpected and even startling sight. I noticed that the headless robot had a torso similar to a female mannequin, giving it a kind of Ms. Roboto persona.

When asked about that, a Motoman spokesperson attributed it to the fact there were cultural differences in the robot's origin in Japan. The robot is extremely hardworking, efficient and precise, just like a woman, she added.

I'd read news reports of humanoid robots, but those were specialized android prototypes that were far removed from packaging. This one was right in the middle of a Pack Expo.

During the demonstration, the DIA10:
* Used both arms to erect a lock-bottom corrugated box
* Set the box down and used each arm to load 12 bottles of product from a conveyor into the box
* Used both arms to transfer the box to a station
* Erected a second box
* Unloaded bottles from the first box and placed them on a conveyor
* Picked up the empty box and collapsed it

Robot watching

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The robot was an attention-getting draw for other attendees as well. Comments that Elkins heard include these:
* that really is different!
* If it only had a head.
* I would hate to arm wrestle that thing.

Frankly, the DIA10 was nearly as unsettling in a "future shock" sort of way as it was impressive as it manipulated containers with a speed and nimbleness that was downright inhuman...which it was, of course.

I better get use to it, and in fact we can all expect more robots doing more amazing things with packaging in the months ahead—and sometimes looking eerily familiar doing it.

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