Robotics, Automation and Industry 4.0: Striking the Right Balance

By: Tim Wills, CMO, Peak-Ryzex, Inc.

Industry 4.0 was first coined by the German government in 2011 to reflect emerging methods of production where machines and products are networked together through the Internet of Things (IoT). With U.S. online sales of goods projected to surpass 735 billion by 2023 (according to a report from Statista), the packaging industry is feeling the pressure to assimilate Industry 4.0 into production with robotics and automation. The challenge lies in determining which future-ready packaging technologies should be merged with more conventional practices to increase productivity and optimize performance.

ROBOTICS IN THE PACKAGING INDUSTRY

Challenges, such as shorter lead times, faster turn times and increased customization are forcing the packaging industry to find new and inventive ways to integrate and connect key processes. While robotics is beginning to play a role in the packaging supply chain, Industry 4.0 has yet to discover a way to merge human and robotic activities due to the risk of injury.

There are a few ways to overcome these challenges. One is through artificial intelligence, allowing humans to control the production activities of the robots via a remote location. In addition, chatbots are now being used to organize and prioritize information on the back end to track inventory levels, deliveries, returns, etc.

Another emerging technology for the packaging industry is machine learning. This involves creating a series of algorithms that teach machines to react to a variety of situations without the need for human interaction. This allows robots to proactively adapt to changes in production. Machine learning has already found its way into numerous market sectors. Although it may be several years until it reaches the packaging industry, it has great potential to reduce product defects, decrease downtime and increase production speed.

AUTOMATION AND THE PACKAGING WORKFORCE

Smart factories are changing the employee landscape. Automation is eliminating the need for less skilled workers, while advancing the need for higher-skilled employees, such as software engineers and programmers. Packaging facilities will have the ability to relocate closer to their distributors or customer base, since the need to seek out locations with a cheap labor force will be less of a priority.

Automation will also allow factories to manage multiple locations from a centralized hub. This will lead to greater consistency, control and uniformity throughout the packaging process. However, transparency needs to be a key component of automation to help determine system availability, increase flexibility within the packaging lines and support ongoing system improvements.

Production line automation allows companies to leverage efficiencies without sacrificing quality. Robots are tireless and require minimal maintenance. A robotic arm can work for countless hours before requiring maintenance or experiencing a mechanical failure. However, before fully embracing robotics and automation, there are a few areas of consideration when it comes to packaging.

COMMON PITFALLS OF INDUSTRY 4.0

While there are many benefits to robotics and automation, companies should consider some of the drawbacks to this new technology. To begin with, many companies are simply not equipped to make the leap to Industry 4.0 without first implementing tested and proven practices including wireless warehouse connectivity and barcode data collection.

In addition, companies who do make the switch to robotics often overestimate the capabilities of a robot and allow it to perform all of the functions previously accomplished by humans. This can result in increased maintenance costs and loss of productivity if the robot fails to perform all the required tasks.

Another common pitfall is understanding the difference between accuracy and repetition. A robot performing a repetitive task may not always do it accurately. While accuracy is key for specific movements, repetition is necessary to consistently perform those tasks over and over again.

Many companies choose a robotics system based solely on the control features. However, its best to first analyze the specific needs of your company before choosing a system. Human implementation of robotics systems also plays a key role. If project engineers don’t understand or embrace the technology, it could lead to deficiencies and inaccuracies in production.

STRIKING THE RIGHT BALANCE

Today, most businesses are stuck in Industry 3.0 and are unsure how to make the leap to the next phase of the Industrial Revolution. While the concept of Industry 4.0 is appealing to many industries, packaging companies must understand the requirements of their lines before they decide if they should automate equipment to effectively get the job done.

Package engineering managers must weigh the need for production flexibility, limited numbers of skilled technicians and other challenges before selecting packaging machinery. Successful companies often apply a mix of automated, semi-automated and human-driven processes to ensure production lines are operationally optimized. For example, change in consumer behaviors are driving companies to increase personalization in addition to the overall service experience.

Industry 3.0 technologies including RFID, 2D and 3D scanning and machine vision sensors and scanners are helping to support consumer demands. Automated label printer applicators provide faster and more accurate label placements while eliminating the need for human intervention. The accuracy of the labels allow packages to move efficiently through the supply chain while providing complete traceability to the end user.

SUCCESSFUL TRANSITION TO INDUSTRY 4.0

Technology is advancing every day. Industry 4.0 will continue to drive changes in robotics and automation in the packaging world. The key to success involves using these new technologies to meet growing consumer demand in an increasingly competitive environment.

However, as we look forward it is always important to consider the technologies that deliver the best return on investment while mitigating risk. Warehouses that are fully optimized in Industry 3.0 will find the eventual transition to Industry 4.0 less challenging. While many packaging companies may not be ready for a completely automated facility, taking small, secure steps towards the next Industrial Revolution will ensure a stable business environment with increased productivity and greater customer satisfaction.