Smarter, smaller, simpler: What’s ahead for robots in packaging?

By John R. Henry in Robotics on February 13, 2018

Robots were hot in 2017 and they’ll be hotter still in 2018. It was impossible to turn around without seeing a story about them. Often it was about how robots and artificial intelligence were going to put everyone out of work and that the world would end. Some of the more extreme claimed that robots were conspiring to kill us all. Many of these articles were written by people who know little about robots to be read by people who know even less.

Take a deep breath and relax. It hasn’t happened and won’t in our lifetimes. Robots are a solution, not a problem. As our economy and manufacturing scream past top gear into overdrive, packagers at consumer packaged goods companies and everyone else have a problem finding enough people to staff their plants. The people they have already work too hard and have trouble keeping up with production demands. Robots will help pick up a lot of the slack.

Here are seven areas where we continue to see advancements in robotics:

 

1. Robomachines

Robots have come a long way. 25 years ago, they were a rarity in packaging, mainly doing heavy lift, repetitive jobs like palletizing or specialized tasks. Today, it is the rare plant that doesn’t have at least a few robots doing jobs—like loading cartons—that used to be done by special-purpose mechanisms.

Remember word processors? Word processing was all they could do. If you needed to do a budget, you needed a separate machine for number crunching. Then came the personal computer. The PC could do word processing, number crunching and much more.  

A lot of packaging machinery is like the word processor. It is custom built to do a specific job. It does it well but can’t do much else. When the job changes, the only solution may be to replace the machine. If it can be reused, it costs time and money to modify it. A pick-and-place mechanism does a good job loading a specific product into a specific carton. When the product or carton become obsolete, it’s hard to repurpose and may wind up as scrap. It is even harder to reconfigure a bottle orienter into a bottle capper. They are self-contained and highly flexible.

But with robotics, when the carton loading or the bottle orienting is no longer needed, the robot can be dismounted and used elsewhere. Robots have long been incorporated into packaging machines. More and more, we are seeing them become the packaging machine itself.

Photo courtesy of XPAK USA.

 

This case erection, packing and closing machine by XPAK USA is a good example. Knocked-down case blanks are stored in a magazine near the robot. The robot grabs a case with an articulated suction cup gripper and pops it open. It passes the open case over stationary guides to close the bottom flaps, then positions the case for loading. Depending on speed and product, the same robot can also load the case. Once loaded, the robot pushes the case through the top-and-bottom sealer. Along with simplicity, the system offers flexibility. Multiple magazines can stage different case sizes and the robot can erect them at random.

 

Photo courtesy of FG Industries.

 

Much of the cost of a bottle filling machine is in the cabinetry, controls and mechanisms. This Robofiller from FG Industries eliminates all that. The filling nozzles are mounted on the arm of an off-the-shelf 6-axis robot. A companion capper mounts capping heads on a similar robot arm.

Changeover is a killer in some plants. Just 10 minutes of daily downtime costs a week of annual production. Robofiller automates changeover. Multiple sets of filling heads can be staged next to the filler. A quick-change coupling allows the filler to automatically place one set in the rack, pick up the next set and keep running almost non-stop with a new product.

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