Improving the Flexibility of Palletizing Technology

New cobots, controls platforms and handling systems offer greater agility and ease of use for end-of-line operations. Image courtesy of Bosch Rexroth Corporation.

Change is a constant challenge for consumer packaged goods (CPG) operations.

By Krupa Ravichandraan, a solutions architect for the CPG market segment at Bosch Rexroth Corporation

Change is the constant challenge for consumer packaged goods (CPG) operations. Rapid shifts in consumer demand, as well as new package sizes, configurations and display designs to grab shopper’s attention, challenge every system in a packaging operation to be as agile and flexible as possible.

Palletizing and depalletizing systems are two platforms that CPG operations are working on to make more flexible. Bottling, form-and-fill and case-packing stations can all be operating smoothly, but product can’t get out the door if the downstream palletizers aren’t optimized to handle rapidly changing case recipe, pallet layouts and the overall production line needs, or if they experience too much unscheduled downtime for maintenance.

Growing complexity of palletizing requirements

When evaluating the use of AMRs, it’s important to consider features like sophisticated locator software that lets the robot independently determine its position and the best path to take to move throughout the facility.

When a packaging operation has only a limited number of stock keeping units to ship, most pallets are single-case SKUs, with a predictable and manageable recipe for layering the cases. However, new kinds of packages and mixed pallets make it more difficult to engineer and program palletizing platforms with the requisite flexibility.

The ever-evolving designs and configurations of CPG products impact the size and shape of the cases to be palletized, and the “recipes” automated palletizers need to accommodate. For example, increased use of variety case packing for direct placement on the retail floor and the rapid growth of e-commerce add more complexity through mixed pallets.

With e-commerce and other operations, there are more mixed pallets, and a much greater range of palletizing automation is needed. This leads to several concerns: Is the end-of-arm tooling flexible enough to rapidly adapt? Does the robot know where to adjust its gripper positions to pick up the case? Where is the weight distribution in that case? Will vision systems need to be added with visual input integrated into the automation controller and programming?

In some operations, this problem is solved by using hand packing and manual palletizing. However, hand palletizing can only work if the volume and throughput schedule is low enough for it to make economic sense.

Some CPG companies may go to the opposite extreme: A major problem with many factory automation systems is overengineered solutions, partly the result of shorter design cycles, using oversized non-customized standard machines and a tendency to stick with older engineering approaches. This can lead to, for example, palletizing systems engineered to run at 60 cases per minute, when the operation only needs 30 cases per minute for optimum efficiency.

If a palletizer or depalletizer needs to handle complex mixed pallets (left), an open, app-based controls platform (right) can make it easier to implement specialized vision apps that, for example, can be downloaded and integrated more rapidly than programming it from scratch.

Smart and simple solutions to palletizing complexity

There is a range of powerful, smart technologies now being deployed that are engineered for ease of use and can help CPG operations improve their palletizing systems without overdesigning.

In the automation realm, there are new machine controls platforms that can help simplify the programming and handling of constantly shifting pallet recipes and mixed pallets. The latest advances in automation controls feature software architectures built around software apps, functioning like a smartphone or tablet. These app-driven automation systems let packaging OEMs or end users select the functionality they need, or they can use any open-source software — including developing the apps themselves.

For example, if a palletizer or depalletizer must handle more complex mixed pallets more frequently, it could be necessary to add vision systems. With an app-based controls platform, specialized vision apps for palletizers can be downloaded and the entire system upgraded more rapidly than programming it from scratch.

Plug-and-produce linear robots

Another way to avoid overdesigning palletizing systems is to compare the choice of a full-scale robotic palletizer versus a Cartesian linear robot. Depending on certain process characteristics, such as box or carton size and shape and load requirements, there are highly productive Cartesian mechatronic handling systems that can provide the full scope of palletizing functionality needed.

New “plug and produce” mechatronics handling systems are now available that make it easy for CPG OEMs or end users to specify and select all the components — linear modules, servo drives, motors, controls and operator functions — for a Cartesian palletizer from a single supplier, and have the system shipped and ready to assemble with one order.

These platforms automatically enable all the drives and controls when first assembled. They also feature intuitive, drag-and-drop programming tools that let line operators create pick-and-place sequences with minimal programming — no need to schedule specialized motion control programmers to come and commission the system.

New seven-axis cobots can be ideal for applications where the cobot may need to be transferred from one line to another. It’s an efficient way to achieve a hybrid palletizing/depalletizing platform without the cost and footprint required with full robot palletizers. Image courtesy of Bosh Rexroth Corporation.

Cobots and mobile robots

For CPG operations that could benefit from robotic palletizers, new collaborative industrial robots, or “cobots,” provide an attractive alternative to large-scale robotic palletizers. In certain CPG production settings, such as contract packaging, these cobots are providing useful solutions for several different types of pick-and-place and palletizing applications.

New seven-axis cobots, for example, are available in multiple configurations, with reaches ranging from 850 millimeters to 1,800 millimeters, and payloads from 5 kilograms to 18 kilograms. Systems like these offer sophisticated robotic palletizing capabilities, combined with sensors and safety controls to make working alongside people extremely safe. This is ideal for applications where the cobot may need to be transferred from one line to another. It’s an efficient way to achieve a hybrid palletizing/depalletizing platform without the cost and footprint required with full robot palletizers.

There is another kind of robot that can help CPG operations improve their palletizing systems: autonomous mobile robots (AMRs). Moving finished pallets efficiently to shrink-wrapping stations or storage areas has often required an operator with a forklift or skid lift.

One consideration is to look for an AMR that features sophisticated locator software that lets the robot independently determine its position and the best path to take to move the pallet to the next station. No tracks need to be laid and no expert robotics programmers need to be engaged, simplifying a critical intralogistics function and freeing personnel to handle more demanding tasks.

Asking the right questions

Building the right palletizing and depalletizing solutions starts with asking the right questions: What products are you palletizing? What are the different case recipes or pallet patterns, and how often will they change? What are the throughput rates? What’s the right tooling to use — gripper, end-of-arm tool, vacuum or mechanical? Do you have sustainability targets to meet? Is safety taken into consideration? Does the solution need to be flexible enough for ever-changing future needs?

There are critical advantages to working with an automation supplier with deep experience answering these questions. It also makes sense to work with suppliers who combine that expertise with complete CPG automation portfolios that include mechatronics, controls, transport and robotic offerings. This makes it easier to configure the right palletizing solution to maximize flexibility, ease of use and CPG productivity.

About the Author

Krupa Ravichandraan is a solutions architect for the CPG market segment at Bosch Rexroth Corporation. Krupa helps end users, system integrators and original equipment manufacturers identify and solve automation pain points with industry-leading complete automation solutions. Learn more at www.boschrexroth-us.com/cpg-info.

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