Packaging Robots: Maximizing Throughput through Automation
Packaging tasks are a standard application for industrial robots. The packaging application involves picking loose parts (commonly from a conveyor) and placing them in an orderly fashion into a box. Packaging robots are a common occurrence in industry due to the value they bring manufacturers. They are common across various industries, but how do you know if it is time for you to automate? This article will help you get started on your automation journey with robotic packaging.
Topics to be discussed in this article:
- Industries for Packaging Robots
- When is it Time to Automate?
- When Automation Might not be Right for You
- Robot Types Used for Packaging
- A Word on End-of-Arm Tooling
Industries for Packaging Robots
Packaging robots are common across many industries due to the fundamental task they perform. Any manufacturer that produces product in volume and packages them before shipping or warehousing might have a use for this technology. Some common industries include:
- Food and beverage
- Retail manufacturing
- PCB manufacturing
- Aerospace contract manufacturing
When is it Time to Automate?
The key question for manufacturers considering automation is, “when does it make sense for me?” This question is difficult to answer without specific details, but there are some common factors you should consider to get started. Your packaging task will include picking loose parts and packing them neatly into boxes. If you experience these common issues on your packaging line, you should consider automating your process:
- You are looking for throughput increases in your process
- You are finding inconsistencies in your packaging process
- You are looking for cost reductions
- You have had injuries on the packaging line
You Are Looking for Throughput Increases in Your Process
Robotic automation is a common way to increase production throughput. Additionally, packaging is a standard application for robots. This means it is considered to be one of the easier applications to do with a robot. Increasing throughput most effectively will require you to target the worst bottlenecks in your process. The packaging process is one of those common bottlenecks. The reason for this is that it is often performed manually downstream of automated tasks performed by machines. Automating these bottlenecks can have a huge impact on overall throughput.
It is important that you choose the right robot and end effector for your application. Choosing the wrong equipment for your application can result in a large investment that doesn’t end up reducing the bottleneck.
You Are Finding Inconsistencies in your Packaging Process
Inconsistencies in your packaging process can include things like:
- Inefficient use of space
- Inconsistent number of parts per package
- Sloppy packaging
These issues can result in lost revenue due to over/under shipping and damaged parts in transit. These have a direct impact on profits. Automating this task can reduce the risk associated with inconsistent packaging.
You Are Looking for Cost Reductions
Cost reductions are one of the most common reasons to automate in today’s hyper-competitive manufacturing environment. Manufacturers are looking to cut costs in any way they can. Automation is an effective way to achieve this. If the application is suitable for automation, manufacturers can find big returns on their investment. Reducing the costs of labor and its associated costs with robotic automation can have a big impact on overall labor costs.
Unfortunately, this impact can have an equally sized negative impact if a robot is selected or implemented improperly. It is crucial to select the right robot for the application. Additionally, you should research the impact automation will have on your manufacturing line to ensure there is a return on investment to be had.
You Have Had Injuries on the Packaging Line
Automating tasks are an effective way to reduce workplace injuries if you can ensure that you can remove people from the vicinity of the task. Workplace injuries associated with packaging commonly include soft tissue injuries such as muscle and ligament strain. More severe cases can occur like crash-related injuries, disfigurement, and dismemberment.
Workplace injuries are issues that must be rectified. They also carry associated costs due to fees and fines. Additionally, workplace injuries have hidden costs due to loss of workplace productivity and sometimes healthcare costs. It is important to ensure if you integrate a robot due to safety issues that you include proper safety risk mitigation in the project. This includes things like safety equipment (robot cage, safety sensors, etc.) to reduce the risk of your robot injuring workers.
Still unclear if you’re ready for automated packaging? Our network of independent advisors is ready to assist you on your automation journey. Utilize our resources to connect to industry experts today.
When Automation Might Not Be Right For You
Even with all the benefits packaging robots can bring, there are instances where automating your packaging process could be a mistake. These issues can have effects ranging from lost revenue, inefficiencies, to complete project failure.
Production volume is a key factor in determining ROI of your automation project. Since robots are typically faster than humans, manufacturers can find large production gains in automating a process. However, low-volume production lines can struggle to find similar gains. Consider a luxury watch manufacturer as an example. This manufacturer may only produce a few dozen luxury watches per day. There is little to be gained from the automation process as humans can easily keep up with this production rate. This problem scales up to higher volume production lines as well. The exact details of your business will determine where the inflection point is to reach a net-positive outcome.
Product is Difficult to Handle
Another issue for packaging robots is handling the product in question. Most products can be handled with standardized end effectors like grippers and suction cups. However, products that are more difficult to handle pose a challenge for the system. Often, this issue can be overcome with custom grippers, but certain scenarios might make the exact solution difficult or near impossible. Examples of things that are hard for packaging robots to handle include wet or slippery items sometimes common in food and beverage environments and delicate products with sharp or fragile edges that require a soft touch. To add more complexity, production lines with mixed products can pose even greater challenges for automation when different types of manipulation need to be optimized for to ensure each item can be picked up. An example could be a toy packaging line with different pieces with different shapes, material, and level of fragility that must be picked by the same robot.
Products that are intended to be shipped with specialty or bespoke packaging are often associated with luxury goods. Features of specialty packaging include unique product placement and additional steps to ensure the box-opening process reflects the desired customer-product experience. An example of this could be a tech product that must be packaged in a paper mâché-style inlay. This often requires additional steps like pulling tabs through openings in the inlay so that the product sits properly. This requires the skill of human fingers that are difficult for robots to replicate.
Robot Types Used for Packaging
Packaging is a common manufacturing task across a wide variety of industries. This is reflected in the wide range of robots used for this application. Some common robot types for packaging include:
The robot type that is right for you is heavily dependent on the details of your application. Some factors to consider include things like payload, required speed, reach, and proximity to human workers. Each robot type has its own strengths and limitations. Selecting the right robot for your application is key for optimizing its effectiveness and gaining the greatest returns on your investment.
A Word on End-Of-Arm Tooling
End of arm tooling is a key consideration that is often overlooked early in the automation process. End of arm tooling (sometimes referred to as an end effector) is the piece at the end of the robot arm that directly manipulates the product or workpiece. For packaging applications, these are common end effectors:
- Pneumatic suction cups
Choosing the right end-effector will have a direct impact on the effectiveness of your robot. Consider an application where you need to package plastic water bottles. Choosing an electromagnet end effector for this task would be a poor choice and would surely result in a completely ineffective robot. Integrators and manufacturers often have a wide variety of end effectors available. Additionally, most have the capability to design and build custom end-effectors most optimal for your application.
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