Influx of Robotics Ease End-of-Line Operations

By Sean Riley, Senior Director, Media and Industry Communications at PMMI

Typically, end of the line operations in packaging include secondary packaging machines like sleevers, tray loaders and case packers as well as transport packaging machines for palletizing and unpalletizing. Together these components provide a variety of functions but mainly are applied for pick and place, creating variety or multi-packs and loading or unloading products or finished packages. Next to processing operations, secondary and transport packaging have seen the most significant growth in robotics over the past five years, according to the Robotics: Innovation 2 Implementation report from PMMI Business Intelligence, a division of PMMI, the Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies. Seventy percent of companies surveyed for the report now employ robotics in secondary packaging with slightly more (73 percent) embracing automation for transport packaging.

Traditionally these steps occur at the end of packaging lines, which indicates a growth in robotic case packaging and automated palletizing to meet the rise of SKUs, shapes and sizes but also to meet increasing labor costs and skilled workforce shortages. Improvements in sensor technology, data analytics and robotic components are driving robots that are more intelligent and flexible than ever before, enabling the wider adoption and expansion of robotics into new applications and industries. Sensor technology, in particular, has opened the door for robots to perform more delicate tasks, such as placing variety packs of candy or potato chips into cartons or retail-ready packaging.

Improved vision sensors have allowed robots to become more accurate when picking objects, safer when operating around humans and more consistent in their ability to reject faulty products. The development of tactile sensors capable of gauging pressure and detecting contact allow robots to safely disengage when coming in to contact with a person or fixed object. Sensors also enable the manipulation of delicate objects without breaking them. The expansion of sensors on robotics has also created several new data collection points for manufacturing operations, creating opportunities to analyze and optimize production processes from new angles.

Robotics have also proven more adept with environmentally friendly packaging. With an expanding consumer focus on the sustainability of packaging, the higher precision and dexterity of a robot facilitates the consistent handling of thinner, less durable packaging materials without costly and time-consuming breakage. Multiple consumer packaged goods companies cited in the report are using 100 percent robotics in their secondary operations, and 59 percent predict an increase of robotic use in their secondary packaging operations. While cobots have not broken through to a large degree in secondary packaging, they are viewed by many in the report as potential game-changers. Cobots are easy to teach and carry out dull, repetitive, dirty or dangerous handling tasks. They can lower the cost of a work station on lines with shorter runs or unusual package configurations. More accessible programming and force-sensitive sensors to protect the worker will free up staff to perform more complex and diversified tasks in the work station. This also has the added benefit of improving workers’ skill levels by having them learn tasks they wouldn’t otherwise partake in.

Small and medium-sized companies are particularly sensitive to workforce gaps and meeting increasing production demands. Doing more with less by supplementing manual processes with targeted robotics, can reduce human idle time for SMEs, by as much as 85 percent.

For most packaging operations, robotics technology was first introduced to the packaging line via transport packaging. Robots continue to lift and stack cases onto pallets in preparation for transport, with nearly two out of three companies looking to add more robotics for palletizing. For many, the intention is to completely automate palletizing as the latest advancements allow for efficient pack patterns, reduced palletizing time, minimal carton gap and measurable productivity. These robots will need to be highly flexible, utilizing Artificial Intelligence (AI) enabled machine learning to operate in dynamic environments with ever-changing products. Lean manufacturing, international trade tensions, an aging workforce and the demand for rapid eCommerce order fulfillment are also contributors to transport packaging growth according to the report.

Low-cost solutions for robotics are continuing to appear, with cobots and smaller sized robots becoming attractive options, even for small and medium-sized operations. End of line robots are also becoming simpler to program and easier to changeover in response to an average skill level on the factory floor. Safety has also remained a key concern when evaluating robotics additions, especially with the burgeoning trend of humans and robots sharing the production space.

Robotics today are more affordable than they have ever been. Average prices have fallen by over a factor of three in the last decade. The initial machine cost of robotics has steadily declined, installation and integration service costs are falling, programming costs have been reduced and in some cases eliminated entirely, and the average time to achieve ROI has plummeted in the last decade. In addition to this, simplified programming and service routines are mitigating the need for retaining costly robotics experts as full-time employees. Sensor technology advancements, production improvements, programming simplification, modular out-of-the-box installation, physical size reduction, and machine learning will all contribute to the continued decline of robotics costs.

As the industry continues to navigate through the challenges posed by COVID-19 and the resulting impact on end of the line packaging operations, manufacturers and suppliers can visit PMMI’s COVID-19 resource page for helpful insights on ways to adapt and evolve in a new normal. For further support in overcoming operational challenges and uncovering practical solutions, PACK EXPO International and Healthcare Packaging EXPO (Nov. 8-11) will serve as North America’s resource for the most advanced packaging technologies across a wide range of industries. More information and updates on the show, produced by PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies, are available at packexpointernational.com.