AI in packaging: machine vision-assisted palletizing and more

By Rick Lingle in Automation on April 18, 2019

ADLink Technology’s gamified booth at Pack Expo showed how artificial intelligence could be leveraged for optimized palletizing, IoT, metadata, WMS and ERP in replacing hand scanning.

 

The promise of gamification using artificial intelligence (AI) promoted as Interactive exhibit shows how packages and pallets can “talk” to each other with Edge IoT was an intriguing incentive to visit the booth of ADLINK Technology during last fall’s Pack Expo in Chicago.

A preshow release indicated the demo was to show how the company’s ADLink Edge supports vision-based Internet of Things use cases throughout the distribution warehouse with a picking, packing and palletization setup.

The setup involved an array of AI-enabled machine vision cameras mounted over the dual pallets that were to be loaded with boxes that the system processed as digitized corrugated shipping containers. A large monitor screen indicated to the operator, aka the game participant, if the box was on the proper pallet with a green or red indicator. All the gamer had to do was load a box onto a pallet and leave it in place if green and switch pallets if red.

Seeing it in action was an edutaining experience, both for observers and attendees trying to win a prize. But there’s serious technology behind the game-show-style thrills, which Daniel Collins, director ADLink IoT North America, explains.

What’s the origination of the company name?

Collins: Our name, ADLink, is based on our expertise in linking the analog to the digital, hence the name A-D-Link. With ADLink Edge, we’re taking something as analog as a corrugated box and digitizing it. We’re generating information about the size, shape, and location of that box in 3D space and time, as well as data about the speed and accuracy of the pallet loading process. For instance, we have some clients using machine vision for smart pallets, while others are using the solution for parts picking, quality inspection, collision avoidance and even robots.

I was impressed by the interactive demo, but why use AI for manual palletizing—and can it assist automated setups?

Collins: Most distribution warehouses today still use hand-held scanners. The portable scanner does two things: it verifies that the package is on the right pallet, and it logs which packages are on which pallets for inventory. Even with the hand scanners, palletizing is a slow, human-intensive and error-prone process. Palletizing can only go as fast as the human operators. Critically, if a package is mis-scanned or not scanned at all (a “no-scan”), that package is effectively lost. It simply no longer exists.

Hand scanners perform one task: they read anything and everything you put in front of them, including markings you don’t want to scan. Hand scanners are also not ergonomically helpful—limiting the number of boxes a pallet loader can carry and requiring the loader to bend or kneel for scanning.

AI solves all of these issues. Using an Edge IoT machine-vision system like ADLink Edge frees up pallet loaders’ hands to carry more boxes, increases scan accuracy and can capture metadata about each package. That’s akin to creating a digital twin, so even if a package is missing a label or doesn’t get scanned at all, the box can still be identified on the pallet.

The ADLink Edge system demoed at Pack Expo, like all ADLink solutions, is configured for full automation.

 

What are the benefits for the customer and operators?

Collins: The benefit of AI for the customer is cost-savings and customer satisfaction. AI saves companies money by speeding the pallet loading process and reducing product loss through increased scanning accuracy. For example, one client of ADLink is a major pork processor where every minute counts as pallets are loaded for cold storage. The client’s highly perishable product must be loaded as quickly as possible, and inventory must be logged correctly so that product is pulled and shipped based on its storage date to prevent spoilage.

For clients with a high mix of packages on pallets (every package on a pallet may be for a different recipient) or who are shipping expensive items globally, ADLink Edge reduces product loss by accurately logging each package and pallet. For these clients, a mis-scan or no-scan can result in weeks of waiting to find out if the right package was delivered to the right customer and replacement costs that’s more than double what they’re charging their customer.

The benefit of AI for the pallet loaders is speed and ease of use. They don’t have to carry a hand scanner or anything else, freeing their hands to load more packages more quickly.

 

What's the specific nature of the AI for this?

Collins: ADLink Edge Smart Pallet is an Edge IoT hardware and software solution for machine vision. We install sensors and cameras above the pallet, so pallet loaders don’t have to learn how to use any new gadgets or programs or do anything, but simply load the pallet. As far as they’re concerned, we’re not even there. Our sensors and cameras are essentially on the ceiling, so their standard operating procedure of loading a pallet does not change at all, and that's extremely exciting to them.

We also install a user interface, including lighting and sound, to give feedback to the pallet loaders. For instance, for one customer we installed red and green lights to highlight packages when they’re on the correct pallet and alert them when they’re on the wrong pallet.

On the backend, we can connect to literally anything. We integrate with any warehouse management system (WMS), enterprise resource planning (ERP), conveyor system, robotics, or any other system a company may be using, and then we “train” the AI to be able to identify, scan, and log packages and labels to our client’s specifications. With our tools, just about anybody can train the machine-vision applications using a drag-and-drop type method. We want to give the actual end users, the subject matter experts, plant managers, and distribution warehouse managers, a voice in the process, and these tools give them that.

 

Next: AI/IoT combo and industry interest

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