Robots and packaging

Robots have made themselves mighty comfortable in packaging operations lately.

Among the many reasons is this one: the interface programming that integrates the packaging machine's controller with the robot's controller has come a long way. One packaging machinery OEM that has prospered in this all-important integration space is Arpac, a maker of end-of-line equipment and the PMMI member whose Schiller Park, IL, headquarters we'll visit this month as part of PMMI's annual meeting. I had a chance to talk with Paul Moore, Director of Robotic & Integrated Systems, about robots and packaging, and here are a few of the highlights.

•There's so many things you can do with these motion controllers and robots if you have the right programmers. We've used Fanuc, Kuka, and Yaskawa, and among them they probably have something like 80% of the commercial robotic market. The three have gotten to be pretty similar, to the point where it's similar to ordering something out of a catalog. They all have 30 or so different models, so our engineers pick Model A with these particular cables and such and such memory and so on-almost as if you are specifying things like the PLC or the number of I/Os on a packaging machine. We then write the interface program that links control of the Arpac PLC with the robot controller.

•In a packaging application, you want to make everything as simple as possible for the operators, the ones who encounter the equipment day in and day out. A good example is a robotic system we designed recently for automated application of a corrugated corner board to pallet loads of cases prior to application of pallet stretch wrap. The first thing the robot has to do in each cycle is pick the cornerboard and then position it in front of an adhesive applicator. If anything at all goes wrong with that adhesive application, rather than requiring an operator to have to get into a robot's controller, we write all of the information to a Rockwell HMI that makes it easy for the operators to control the robots. They can jog the robot or jog the stretch wrapper with buttons on the touch screen. So our programmers make it very easy for an operator to control the robotic cell and recover from ordinary operating errors that may occur.

•Has there been progress in that interface space between the Arpacs of the world and the Yaskawas and Fanucs and Kukas of the world? Well, the quality of the integrator will often dictate how smoothly this interface goes. And remember, it's not like an automotive plant where, because 350 robots are installed, that plant houses a lot of experts when it comes to robotics. What we try to do is put as much control in the Rockwell HMI as possible. We try to make it intuitively obvious to the operator so he can index products through the cell and recover from errors that might arise because of bad packaging materials, for example, whether it's the pallet wrap or the corner boards or the slip sheets or whatever.

•Robotics has come a long way in packaging. Just look at palletizing. Twenty years ago it was all traditional machines. People were afraid of robots. About 10 years ago it was 50/50. Now there is a clear perception that robotics is the latest technology. We've seen a shift from actively avoiding to actively seeking them out.

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