Why robotics and automation are the perfect package for manufacturers

By Umair Ejaz, Manager, Visual Components

Packaging equipment comes in many shapes and sizes. Cartons, bottles, boxes and sacks are just some of the containers used to house goods and send them down the supply chain and into the hands of consumers. Alongside high throughput, manufacturers must ensure that packaging weights and materials are standardized to meet compliance, quality and market requirements.

With potentially millions of items needing to be packaged to the same standard, it’s easy to see why so many manufacturers are moving away from manual processes with humans and towards automation. Economic strain and continued high inflation is also pushing decision-makers to explore how to save money and achieve new efficiencies.

Now, robots can handle a lot of the packaging and palletizing processes in factory environments today, but managing and maintaining them to provide this value can be increasingly complex. This is worsened by the persistent skills shortage in the industry, with the US sector alone expected to have 2.1 million unfilled jobs by 2030. According to research by Visual Components, only a third (33%) of US manufacturers strongly believe that their workforce is skilled in using automation and robotics in the manufacturing environment. With this in mind, how can manufacturers ensure that robots deliver on their automation potential?

Collaboration is key

Automated packing via robotic applications ensures a consistent production rate compared to human handling. The contrasting skills and inputs of humans can create unwanted variations. It’s a benefit that’s been noted by numerous manufacturers who have brought in collaborative robots, or cobots. Their flexibility means they can be placed in areas with limited floor space and be applied to various tasks due to their lightweight nature, including packaging processes. They’re also cheaper than industrial equipment to deploy.

Previous skepticism has made way for much wider adoption as cobots become fully capable of performing tasks that humans previously had to do. Sensing technologies even mean that they can detect the size of packages to be sorted into different lines, which is ideal for ecommerce retailers who ship out items to households. Cobots are also devised with safety of the human worker in mind, with regulations mainly derived from the Robotic Industries Association in the US.

Bringing robots up-to-speed

Cobots can make a tangible difference on the factory floor, but humans must both program and maintain deployments to ensure they continue to perform tasks to a high standard. Manual programming can take hours or even days before the robot is up and running. 20% of US manufacturers say that low utilization of robotic equipment is a key issue for them. Rather than require workers to test and train robotic applications on the physical factory floor, offline programming software (OLP) can present an accurate model of the robot and work cell, and replicate its movements and workflows via simulation.

Concurrent programming, instead of sequential, means the time spent on preparing a cobot deployment is significantly reduced. Engineers can even complete this programming from a remote location, allowing them to reduce their carbon footprint. Away from robot movements and workflows, simulation software can also help to reconfigure layouts to optimize the use of floor space, where workspace demands can easily escalate for packaging and palletizing processes. As a fast-paced operation, any machine breakdown needs to be quickly rectified to redirect the production flow, and simulation can help manage these events.

Plug-and-play components within the software can help train employees on how to program and manage cobot deployments, effectively upskilling them in new technologies. Rather than replace professionals in the business, these platforms can complement human expertise and help plug the talent gap, which is a key component of Industry 5.0.

Facilitating a fast-paced environment

Packaging is a fast-paced process that requires alignment between humans and technology to ensure that goods make their way through the factory floor. With OLP, organizations can refine robotic movements and workflows for automation, reducing the time it takes to manually program cobots. Simulation software can also allow better utilization of space and minimize the risk posed by potential downtime. The industry is very much up against it with economic pressure and a shortage of required skills, but technology can go some way towards easing these concerns.

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