A 30 percent drop in new equipment orders in North America made 2006 a rough year for the robotics industry. The automotive sector, the industry’s largest segment, invests in robots in cycles and 2006 was a down year.
Packaging and palletizing, the two applications of most interest to consumer packaged goods companies, exhibited staying power despite the down cycle. Packaging and palletizing orders accounted for 5 percent of the total North American robotics market in 2006, an uptick of 1 percent from 2005, according to the Robotic Industries Association (www.roboticsonline.com). For the five-year period, 2000 to 2005, overall sales of packaging and palletizing systems rose 113 percent. From 2001 to 2006, the rise was a robust 150 percent.
Why do orders for packaging and palletizing systems continue to grow?
• A greater focus by suppliers and system integrators on developing packaging and palletizing solutions
• Advances in technology, including faster cycle time and greater capabilities from vision systems
• Every year robots become easier and more cost-effective to apply, control, and operate
• Predictable productivity and quality gains
• Robots perform repetitive, boring, physically stressful tasks better than people—they do not get tired, distracted, or injured
• Labor savings
• Return on investment is attractive
The Robotic Industries Association views packaging and palletizing as a bright spot for its members. Last year the association sponsored a workshop on robots and vision for packaging and palletizing applications and also attended Pack Expo for the first time as an exhibitor. This year the association launched a comprehensive packaging and palletizing section on its website, complete with an application tutorial, case histories, white papers, and links to suppliers and system integrators.
“There is no question that the robotics industry wants to grow sales in non-automotive segments,” says Jeff Burnstein, vice president of marketing and public relations, Robotic Industries Association. “This means that more attention will be placed on developing new and innovative solutions.”
Here are a few examples of those solutions in action.
Picking, sorting, and packing muffins
Handling delicate bakery products is labor intensive. Until now these operations resisted automation for several reasons, including these:
• The goods must be handled with great care and yet at high speeds
• Goods are not identical in shape or type
• Some items may be damaged or broken
Italian packaging company TecnoPack (www.tecnopackspa.it) worked with robotics supplier ABB Robotics (www.abb.com) to develop high-speed systems for automating end-of-line picking, sorting, and packing muffins.
In one system, TecnoPack used four IRB340 FlexPicker robots from ABB Robotics. While the upstream part of the process has a conventional system for turning the products out from trays, the loading process is based on two independent cells. Each two-robot cell has a production capacity to pack 380 muffins/min. in bakery boxes.
The use of a double robot unit ensures that the line can effectively be operated over a wide range of production speeds—from low to high. In addition, the system is capable of packing two different products—for example, a plain muffin and a chocolate muffin—in a mixed arrangement. With conventional automation, this would normally have to be done in two runs, with a reconfiguring process for the second operation.
Operators use a graphical user interface and simple drag-and-drop techniques for programming. Combined with a machine vision system, the control software enables the robotic system to recognize muffins regardless of changes in the environment, such as lighting conditions, reflections, or contact between products.
The vision system is capable of recognizing the randomly scattered muffins on the moving conveyor. This means the system can be used for quality control through shape recognition of acceptable muffins as well as packing. TecnoPack says that customers will be able to reuse more than 70 percent of the equipment in future applications.
On this side of the Atlantic, Otis Spunkmeyer, San Leandro, CA, a leader in the sweet baked goods industry, wanted to decrease damage to muffins due to mishandling following baking. The company worked with Adept Technology (www.adept.com) to improve handling quality while increasing handling speed.
Now after the muffins are depanned, they are conveyed to the packaging areas, where two robotic pick-and-place machines are located. Adept’s integrated vision system locates each muffin on the line. Three muffins at a time are picked by a robot and placed into plastic trays. The plastic trays travel on a conveyor alongside the muffin conveyor for a smooth operation. The robots’ movements are so gentle the muffins are not damaged. This system is designed to handle up to 180 muffins per minute.
Picking and packing potato chip multi-packs
Walkers, Leicester, England, a division of Frito-Lay, is Britain’s favorite potato crisp brand and the country’s largest crisp manufacturer. (Potato chips are called “crisps” in the U.K.) Walkers employs more than 4,000 people in 15 locations. The company says that 11 million people eat a Walkers’s product every day. One of the operations at the flagship Leicester plant is the crisp multi-pack packing line. The plant features four Schubert Packaging Systems (www.schubertpackaging.com) TLM-44 picker lines, each of which can place up to three different varieties of crisp packs in any chosen combination directly into the in-feed chain of the horizontal flow-wrap machines.
On each of the four lines, 480 bags/min. are fed from hoppers via six separating systems (80 bags per system). Controlled by optical detection systems, the three robot stations with a total of six arms place the bags in front of the in-feed chain carriers. Unidentified or incorrectly positioned bags are returned to the hopper. The line is configured to run a range of pack sizes and can be reset within minutes, Schubert says. The maximum chain speed of the flow pack machine is 1.3’/sec, which translates to 40 six-bag multi-packs/min on each of the four machines.
Mark Grover, who directs potato chip operations at the plant, was quoted in a European trade magazine as saying, “We focus on cost-cutting every day. The payback period has to be right, because our return on investment target is very high and it is essential that every new investment reaches this target.” Schubert reports that the plant has increased its investment in robotic systems and now has a total of seven TLM-44 picker lines.
Since 1933, Chocolates Halba, Wallisellen, Switzerland, has been creating upscale Swiss chocolate. For holidays such as Easter and Christmas, Chocolates Halba produces a range of seasonal specialties. Due to increasing demand for its seasonal products, the company began working with Sigpack Systems (http://pa.bosch.com/sigpacksystems/eng) on a robotics solution to increase the output of its chocolate wrapping machines.
Prior to the new system, chocolates were brought by hand to the wrapping machines. An operator removed the products from boxes and fed each chocolate to the wrapping machine at a rate of about 70-80 pieces/min., which was well under the operating capacity of the wrapper. Wrapping machines were shut down during mealtimes and rest breaks.
Sigpack Systems incorporated a Delta robot and a feeding system. In the new automated line, chocolates are fed into a hopper. A vibratory system aligns the individual chocolates one by one onto a ribbed conveyer belt. The separated chocolates are recognized on the conveyor by a vision system. The Delta robot is able to pick up the delicate chocolates one by one and place them accurately into the wrapping machine at a rate of more than 100/min.
While there are many different varieties made and wrapped at the plant, all have similar dimensions and shapes. Any production changes between runs can be accomplished through minimal adjustments to the feed line and through the robot’s control system. Thanks to the use of this new technology, personnel at the plant have been given more value-adding responsibilities. The new system is credited with increasing the productivity of the entire plant.
Marcel Bigler, technical manager at Chocolates Halba, was one of those involved in the decision making process of this project. At final evaluation, he described the robot installation as clearly cost justified.
Palletizing frozen foods
At Brakebush Brothers, Inc., Westfield, WI, finished boxes of fully cooked, frozen food products are sorted, picked, stacked, and transported to the deep freeze. And it’s all done by a single robotic palletizer. Brakebush Brothers manufactures processed chicken products sold through retail and foodservice operators. In late 2005, Carey Brakebush, operations project manager, began to explore automated palletizing solutions to handle up to 1,400 cases per hour.
Brakebush says, “We needed a dedicated robotic palletizing solution that would increase process consistency, productivity, and scheduling flexibility, at the same time that it reduced handling damage, health costs, and labor costs—all while allowing continuous operation.”
Brakebush Brothers partnered with QComp Technologies, Inc. (www.qcomptech.com), an ABB Robotics integrator specializing in robotic palletizing, robotic case packing, and automatic guided vehicles. The packaging end of the high-volume line has a single infeed and three outputs with each finished case weighing about 10 lb. Three primary SKUs are bar-code labeled and scanned by the time they reach the palletizer.
The robotic system identifies the various SKUs by bar-code scanner and stacks the cases on the appropriate pallet in the correct pattern. The pallets are then labeled and moved via automated transport cart to the stretch wrapper and finally to the freezer. The entire palletizing operation is integrated with Brakebush Brothers’s SAP inventory management system.
“Our automation partner was able to provide a total solution based on our current and projected needs,” says Brakebush. “We looked for someone who could understand our business from the ground up and be involved at every stage of the research, design, development, testing, implementation, and service phases.”
The main quality Brakebush recommends in an integrator is responsiveness. “A robotics solution, like a chain, is only as good as its weakest link. An integrator should have a track record of on-time delivery, excellent support, and competitive cost structure,” says Brakebush. “If there’s a problem in any area, at any time, a good integrator will respond quickly and effectively.”
Country’s oldest brewery adopts robotic palletizing
D. G. Yuengling and Son Brewery, Pottsville, PA, is America’s oldest brewery, with continuous operations since 1829. Joe Frinzi, operations and quality manager, describes the upgrading of the Pottsville facility’s depalletizing and palletizing system.
“Before we installed a new KHS keg line four years ago, we had personnel unloading empty beer kegs off pallets and loading them onto a production line for cleaning and eventual refilling. When full kegs came off the line, our people stacked them onto pallets ready for loading into delivery trucks. This was hard, physically demanding work. We felt we could do better for the operation in terms of improving production speed and using our human capital in more productive ways.”
Frinzi worked with KHS and KUKA Robotics (www.kukarobotics.com) to completely automate the movement of kegs on and off pallets. With the new system, a KUKA robot picks up two empty kegs at a time and sets them on the conveyor. Once the pallet is unloaded, the robot moves it to a centrally located pallet stacker. A second nearby robot takes pallets from the stacker and loads full kegs onto a pallet that is ready for shipment. A conveyor moves the loaded pallets to a discharge area for forklift pick up. The entire palletizing system is coordinated through programmable logic controllers. Frinzi reports the KHS system with robotic palletizing doubled production capacity. Personnel were reassigned to more value-adding responsibilities.
“For a growing company, I would recommend this type of a system as a means of increasing productivity,” says Frinzi. “Once our people learned how to manipulate and run the computer it became a breeze. The operators love it. They would never go back to the old way. I’d also say that we’ve received world-class responsiveness in terms of support from KUKA Robotics. That level of support ensured that we didn’t miss a beat in terms of overall production.”
A plug-and-play palletizing cell
Innovative Handling (www.ihm-materialhandling.com), an integrator for Fanuc Robotics (www.fanucrobotics.com), specializes in palletizing. Recently one of the company’s customers changed their integration philosophy from multiple lines feeding into one large robotic palletizing cell to one small palletizing cell per line. Each cell is specifically designed for case palletizing but can be configured for case packing. These cells can be equipped with an over-and-under conveyor used to introduce a new pallet and hold a full pallet or be integrated with a wrapping system and pallet dispenser.
Nick Orzechowski, president, Innovative Handling, says, “There are several advantages to this approach with the biggest being the cell is fully tested, debugged, and started-up at the integrator’s facility. Basically, each cell is a plug-and-play unit. The customer is also fully trained before the cell arrives, minimizing downtime.”
Orzechowski said a plug-and-play strategy offers flexibility since the unit can be moved to different production lines or facilities with a fork truck. Physical requirements include power, air, and enough room to accommodate the cell’s 12’ x 8’ footprint. Orzechowski estimated that return on investment for similar cells will range from less than a year to one and a half years. The price tag for these cells is approximately one third the cost of one large multiple-line cell. “Typically the plug-and-play unit is not designed to eliminate jobs but to relieve workers of palletizing heavy product,” says Orzechowski.
In 1921, Czechoslovakian Karel Capek wrote a play about an intelligent, artificially created person. He called this creation a robot. The word “robot” is Czech for worker. Sixty years after Capek coined the term, automakers around the world began making major investments in industrial robots. Their goal was to improve quality and cut labor costs.
Those 1980s images of auto plant robots remain with us today—long lines of massive metal arms, swinging jerkily, welding car frames in showers of sparks or fitting doorframes and car hoods.
Those images may be a lingering distortion of today’s robotic realities. The shapes and capabilities of these intelligent machines are increasingly varied as the applications in this article indicate, whether it’s picking and packing muffins or potato chip bags or lifting and palletizing beer kegs or cases of frozen food. While the shape and the mental images of robots change over time, one true constant seems to remain. As Capek envisioned, robots are highly capable, never tiring workers.