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Packaging is part of robotics’ banner year

The North American robotics industry achieved record growth of 17% in 2012, and as these firsthand accounts prove, packaging applications played a part in that phenomenal expansion.

A high-speed delta robot uses a vacuum end-of-arm tool to pick up individual diagnostic test kits and feed them to a flow wrapper.
A high-speed delta robot uses a vacuum end-of-arm tool to pick up individual diagnostic test kits and feed them to a flow wrapper.

Last year was a banner year for the robotics industry, “the strongest year ever,” according to statistics released in February by the Robotics Industries Association. “A total of 22,598 robots valued at $1.48 billion were sold to companies in North America in 2012, beating the previous record of 19,337 robots sold in 2011,” placing the U.S. second only to Japan in robot use, says RIA.

Compared to 2011, North American orders were up 17% in units and 27% in dollars. While the automotive industry was the strongest driver for this growth, increases were also seen in industries such as life sciences and pharmaceuticals (3%) and in applications such as assembly (40%), coating and dispensing (13%), and material handling (3%), among others.

According to Stuart Cooper, vice president of sales with Flexicell, who was quoted in a January article from RIA, “Robotics Industry Expected to Thrive in 2013,” this year holds promise, as well, especially in the areas of packaging and palletizing. “2013 will be a good year for the robotics industry. The return on investment in packing and palletizing applications is favorable. I anticipate accelerated growth in 2013 and do not see any markets within the robotics industry declining,” he said.

In the following four case histories, brand owners from a variety of industries—medical diagnostics, tobacco, snackfoods, and machine and engine parts—share the rewards and challenges of integrating robotics into their packaging operations.

Two arms prove better than one on new diagnostic test kit packaging line

Since 1989, Blacksburg, VA-based TechLab, Inc. has been producing rapid, non-invasive intestinal diagnostic test kits for use by clinical laboratories around the world. In mid-2012, the company opened its second manufacturing and distribution facility in Radford, VA, to keep pace with growing demand for its chemistry test kits. In designing one of the packaging lines in the new facility, TechLab built upon the knowledge it had acquired from its experiences automating its first facility.

“When we first started out, we were packaging all of our products manually,” recalls TechLab production supervisor Steven Lester. “We would have a handful of operators taking the individual components and placing them into preformed packages, and then hand-sealing them, one at a time.”

TechLab’s first foray into automation involved close collaboration with ESS Technologies to introduce one of the first FANUC LR Mate M430 articulated-arm pick-and-place robots into a pharmaceutical-type packaging environment. The robot was used to load parts onto an infeed conveyor that led to an entry-level flow-wrapping machine. This increased TechLab’s packaging line speed to 35 parts/min and reduced labor from seven or eight operators down to two.

By the time the Radford facility was completed, the products packaged on this semi-automated line had experienced “exponential growth,” says Lester, compelling TechLab to further automate the process. In its second generation of automation, TechLab specified the ESS TaskMate robotic infeed loading system, including a FANUC LR Mate 200iC six-axis robot, and a FANUC M-1iA high-speed delta robot. The first robot removes individual diagnostic test kits from a stainless-steel tray and places them on a staging conveyor; once the staging conveyor is full, the second robot picks up parts one at a time and feeds them in proper orientation to a Heritage flow-wrapper from Campbell Wrapper. The combination of the two robots has more than doubled the packaging line’s speed to 90 parts/min.

Says Lester, “The reason we chose to go with the robotics, especially the little M-1iA pick-and-place, was to minimize the footprint of our facility. There are a multitude of different means you can use to get parts to the infeed of the flow wrapper, but all of them either introduce significant noise or require a substantial footprint in order to load parts at 80 to 90 parts per minute.”

Crucial to the selection of the tray unloading system was its use of FANUC’s iRVision® vision technology. TechLab runs two product types on the same flow-wrapping line. While both products are similar in size, one is deeper. Both are supplied to the line in the same size tray, with one product packed in the tray either in one single layer of 128 parts, or in three layers of 128, separated by slip sheets. The second product is packed in seven rows, separated by dividers, with six parts stacked on top of one another in each row. “So the robot needs to have the vision capabilities to call through different products and know the exact location of the parts [in the trays], and whether there are dividers or slip sheets, and how much product is in the tray,” explains Lester.

Both robots use vacuum end-of-arm tools to minimize damage to the parts. “It’s easier on plastics to have a silicone suction cup as opposed to some form of metal or plastic gripper,” says Lester. “Also, in order to obtain the cycle speeds we needed and to ensure that we have longevity of the tooling, vacuum just made more sense.”

Since installing the automated system in June 2012, TechLab has seen a 10% increase in production over the line used in Blacksburg, while going from five 12-hr shifts to four eight-hour shifts. “To put that into perspective,” says Lester, “with our older machinery, it would take us roughly from eight to 12 hours to process 15,000 devices. Currently we can process 30,000 devices comfortably in an eight-hour workday.

“We have definitely improved the overall efficiency of our process. We have also reduced the number of rejects that we have had, as well as equipment-related downtime. That has really enabled us to keep up with—or actually be slightly ahead of—our manufacturing schedules.”

New-approach robotic case erector boosts speed, flexibility at Caterpillar

A recent innovation born from collaboration between XPAK and ABB has resulted in a robotic solution designed to replace what the companies say are “complex conventional case erectors, with their multitude of adjustment knobs, wheels, and dials.” The ROBOX™ robotic case erector uses a fixed tool over which an ABB robot slides an unopened, flat box and delivers an erected and taped box, in a typical footprint of 8 x 8 ft—a 30% reduction in floor space versus a conventional case-erecting system.

“With ROBOX, we started with a clean slate,” says Juan Ortiz, vice president of development at XPAK. “We didn’t want to fall into the trap of using a robot to replace the same mechanisms of a conventional system. We had to change the way we think about the application of robotics. It’s not just an innovation in technology for packaging, it’s an innovation in the way we think and approach the needs of our customers.”

According to XPAK, ROBOX was engineered to meet the changing requirements of the packaging industry: “Once it was commonplace to have long production runs and relatively standard packages, but end users are now more interested in on-demand packaging, short production runs, mix-and-match variety packs, and individualized packaging configurations,” says the company.

Responding to these industry trends, the system requires virtually no changeover and can handle on-demand production. Its small footprint and simple design make it suitable for integration into existing packaging lines, and allow for shorter lead times than conventional systems. The robotic solution can also be reassigned to do other tasks. Notes XPAK, this flexibility translates into additional savings and gains in reduced maintenance time, eliminated changeovers, increased safety, higher productivity, and reduced labor costs.

At The Caterpillar Inc. Parts & Logistics Division in Clayton, OH, ROBOX is being used to handle a variety of box sizes in the company’s parts distribution operation. Caterpillar uses the unit to erect, label, and present corrugated cases to associates, who load them with the required product. Caterpillar was particularly attracted by the flexibility of the system and the easy, tool-less changeovers involved in moving from one box size to another.

“The logic of the system contains the recipes for the various carton sizes, and the anvil-design closure frame allows associates to change between cartons in minutes with no carton wastage during setup,” relates Adam Farmer, project manager, Caterpillar Parts & Logistics Division.

“This is of particular importance to Caterpillar, due to the extreme number of carton sizes utilized during the packaging process and the considerably low runs that we receive,” he continues. “Because of these benefits, this machine will soon be fully utilized on all three shifts and increase units per hour by 400 percent, depending upon the accompanying manual packaging process.

“All other options we considered involved lengthy time changes and costly tool changes between runs. The ROBOX solution was simply the only one on the market that made sense to us.” 

Sunflower snack bags are case-packed at 100/min

SunGold Foods, a subsidiary of Fargo, ND-based Red River Commodities, provides custom roasting, seasoning, and packaging of in-shell sunflower-seed snacks for co-packed and private-label brands from its facilities in Horace, ND, and Lubbock, TX. The newest plant, in Lubbock, opened in late 2012 with the capability to roast 25 million pounds of in-shell seeds—and with room to double that capacity as the company grows its customer base.

Duplicating the success of its secondary packaging operations for 4.25-oz snack bags in Horace, the Lubbock facility installed a Wexxar WF20 case erector and a Belcor BEL 250 case taper, also from Wexxar. However, whereas in Horace operators were manually packing cases with 28 of the 4.25-oz bags, Lubbock opted for an automated picking and packing system from Flexicell.

Among SunGold’s requirements for the new system were that it could place the 28 packages into cases at speeds from 100 to 120/min, and provide an accuracy of greater than 99.5% case fill, says SunGold Foods director of operations Patrick Pfaff. SunGold also specified the use of a FANUC robot for the system, as the company had already employed four FANUC robots in other Red River/SunGold plants with great success.

The resulting system uses a FANUC LR Mate 200iC electric, servo-driven mini-robot with six degrees of freedom. End-of-arm tooling consists of eight vacuum cups, with the vacuum supplied through a pump. Two vacuums accurately pick and place a flexible package; each movement of the robot places four flexible bags into a magazine until 28 are loaded, then pushed into a case. Says Pfaff, “The tooling was chosen for its ability to firmly grasp the flexible packaging and hold it through the robot’s motions without damaging the package’s integrity.”

During packaging-line operation, the in-shell sunflower seeds are packaged using a vertical form/fill/seal machine that creates the 4.25-oz flexible bags. These bags leave the vf/f/s machine at a speed of 100 packs/min onto a Flexicell-supplied high-speed incline conveyor that carries them up approximately 4 ft to another high-speed conveyor that helps increase separation of the bags. Each package is then shot onto a sled on a racetrack-style conveyor, also supplied by Flexicell. Once four of the sleds are filled, they index to the FANUC robot, which picks up the four bags and places them into a magazine system from Flexicell.

In the meantime, the Wexxar case former erects a case, and the Belcor taper seals the bottom flaps. The case is then transported to the Flexicell fill station, which tips the case. Once the magazine is filled with seven sets of four snack bags, they are pushed into the waiting case. The case is then tipped back onto the conveyor and is transferred to another Belcor taper, as well as past a Markem Imaje print-and-apply labeler. The final step is manual palletizing. “The plan is to eventually replace our hand palletizing with robotic palletizing from three different lanes of products,” says Pfaff.

Reflecting on the advantages of the automated system, Pfaff says, “The biggest benefit has been in the control of labor costs and consistency of throughputs. We were able to hire one less person per shift when we opened the plant, and we are able to run the machine for a full eight-hour shift without breaks. The other benefits are the consistency of counts in the case and how neat and tidy the case is packed.”

Chinese tobacco factory smokes competition with advanced automation

As competition in China’s tobacco market becomes increasingly fierce, more and more tobacco companies have begun to enhance their existing automated manufacturing technology and to introduce intelligent robot technology into their production processes.

One such company is the Hangzhou Cigarette Factory, located in eastern China’s Zhejiang Province. The state-run company is one of 36 key industrial enterprises of the national tobacco industry and is one of the 26 largest enterprises in Hangzhou. Keeping pace with industry trends, the tobacco company is continuously introducing new equipment and technology to save labor and energy, reduce emissions, and enhance its overall competitiveness.

In 2011, the Hangzhou Cigarette Factory moved into a new plant, representing an investment of approximately US$162 million. That year, a correspondent for China’s Packaging News publication had the opportunity to visit the plant to view firsthand the role of automation technology at the facility.

Unpacking and cleaning
Before cigarettes can be produced, an indispensible step is the pretreatment of newly acquired tobacco leaf to control the quality of the cigarette. In the pretreatment workshop of the new Hangzhou Cigarette Factory plant, three unpacking lines are equipped with two standard six-axis KUKA robots.

“There are many unpredictable factors in transportation, such as deformation,” says the factory plant manager. “The unpacking lines first scan the bar code on the container to obtain the relevant information, then the KUKA robots complete the automated unpacking.” The tobacco arrives in a film-wrapped bale, with corrugated panels on the top and bottom. The robot removes the top board first, then turns the container over and removes the bottom board. After both corrugated sheets are removed, another robot tears the film open.

The KUKA robot can be adjusted according to production standards, and the end-of-arm clamp can be adjusted as needed to achieve diverse functionality, allowing flexibility in the unpacking line.

After pretreatment, the tobacco is moved to the shredded tobacco workshop, where all processes are completed automatically. It is here that foreign matter is removed, and the tobacco then undergoes a conditioning process, where high temperatures and humidity restore moisture to the tobacco to suitable levels for cutting and blending. Once the tobacco is shredded, it is packaged in a reusable container that can be stored temporarily or transported to another location.

One challenge of packaging the shredded tobacco however is avoiding contamination from the tobacco stored previously in the containers. This challenge is addressed in the Hangzhou facility through the use of robotics. Says the plant manager, “In the Hangzhou Cigarette Factory, KUKA six-axis robots assume another important task: cleaning.” The robots are used to remove remnants of the previously packed tobacco, and then load the new tobacco into the container.

Gantry robots aid automated warehouse
Another area where the Hangzhou facility has implemented new robotics technology to increase its competitiveness is in automated warehouse logistics. Its automated storage and retrieval system has allowed the company to save space, reduce labor, waste, and the overstocking of capital, eliminate errors, improve logistics efficiency, and more.

The company’s shredded tobacco warehouse is the site of China’s first gantry robot, the KUKA Jet. “We introduced the new KUKA Jet in August of 2012,” says the plant manager. “The KUKA Jet features high speed and great flexibility, which is characterized by the parallel construction of the first axis, which has a measured speed of 3.3 meters per second, which greatly extends the operating room. Two robots can deal with 500 cases per hour, equivalent to four and a half ordinary machines. The KUKA Jet robots have met our growing automation requirements.” The technical advancement of the KUKA Jet robots lies in the parallel move, while the other five axes need to be coupled together.

In the same warehouse, the Hangzhou Cigarette Factory also stores cases of packaged cigarettes, some for an extended time. Because of this, the seal of the cases is very important to ensuring product freshness. According to the plant manager, the gantry robots’ gripper is highly accurate; its bias does not exceed 5 mm, which ensures the tightness of the box. The clamps of the robots are produced by the Hangzhou Cigarette Factory, while the vacuum generators and suction cups are supplied by Schmalz.

The current annual output of Hangzhou Cigarette Factory has now reached 1 million cases. Looking to the future, the company plans to continue to focus on innovation in order to stay at the forefront of the tobacco industry.

The above was sourced with permission from an article by Steve Hao and Eva Cai, Packaging Update.


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