A Checklist for Cobot-powered Palletizing

Cobots Boost Palletizing Productivity, Address Labor Shortages and Protect Workers 

Norwegian meat producer Nortura deployed collaborative automation to optimize its palletizing operations. On average, the system stacks 1,700 boxes per day. Image Courtesy of Universal Robots

By Joe Campbell, Strategic Marketing & Applications Development at Universal Robots A/S

Manual palletizing requires workers to bend, lift and twist for hours on end. Over time, this unergonomic task can cause repetitive strain injuries and musculoskeletal disorders, endangering worker health and driving up labor costs. With North American manufacturers and logistics facilities already facing prolonged labor shortages, the case for freeing workers from manual palletizing tasks through the use of collaborative robots (‘cobots’) is compelling. Moreover, these collaborative automation solutions are proven to boost productivity and throughput, improve quality, and are available 24/7.

Overcoming tradition

Traditional industrial palletizing systems have been around for decades, but they are inflexible and difficult to reconfigure, making them a poor fit for high mix/low volume and seasonal manufacturing. Traditional systems also require safety fencing, have a large footprint, are time consuming to operate and require outsourced expertise for programming and maintenance.

By contrast, cobot-powered palletizers provide faster cycle times, faster return on investment (ROI), lower total cost of ownership (TCO), greater flexibility and come with a small footprint. Additionally, after a risk assessment, cobots can be deployed in close proximity to humans without the need for safety fencing. Thanks to different flavors of intuitive palletizing control software, cobots are also easy to deploy, regardless of your company’s level of prior robotics experience. This reduces downtime, speeds ROI and eliminates the intimidating programming costs associated with traditional palletizing solutions.

Off-the-shelf collaborative palletizing solutions such as the CoBo-Stack system shown here, provide all the hardware and software you need to palletize quickly. Image Courtesy of Universal Robots

Stacking profits with collaborative automation

The business case for cobots is compelling, especially when compared to traditional industrial robot-based palletizing systems. The TCO for cobots is much lower than the TCO for traditional robot palletizers, and cobot based systems require a smaller capital investment. Additionally, cobots and their end-of-arm tooling and effectors are easy to deploy and program. This reduces downtime, deployment, and maintenance costs significantly, and in many cases, completely eliminates the programming and engineering costs associated with traditional automation.

Cobots offer an effective way to tackle labor shortages. And, since they are much more flexible than traditional automation, cobots can be easily deployed and redeployed on a wide range of applications, bringing extra value to your palletizing operations. Being able to adapt production to specific customers and to seasonal products gives cobot-powered palletizing solutions a significant edge over traditional robot palletizing setups. Return on investment is typically within a year –and sooner than that in many cases.

Application kits

To ensure an effective deployment, your cobot arm will need to be fitted with end-effectors specially designed for palletizing applications. Look out for off-the-shelf palletizing application kits that are certified to work with your cobot and that provide all the hardware and software you need to get palletizing quickly.

Software is key. Look for software that scores high on usability and is compatible with your existing cobot programming interface. Features such palletizing pattern generators greatly simplify your palletizing automation deployment.

Application kits are a big deal for companies of all sizes, but particularly for smaller companies that would find it difficult and time-consuming to source and integrate all these different elements into a cohesive palletizing system in-house.

Five principles of palletizing

Darex deployed a UR5 cobot from Universal Robots to handle packaging and palletizing tasks in its Oregon facility. The deployment resulted in a 30% optimization of Darex’s packaging & palletizing processes. Image Courtesy of Universal Robots

Payload:  The two most important factors to keep in mind regarding payload are the weight of the cases and products being moved and (depending on the application and the throughput of your conveyor) whether your palletizing application is set up to handle multiple boxes at the same time. Remember to factor in the weight of the gripper you plan to use too as it will add to the overall payload of the system.

Gripper:  If your palletizing application pushes your cobot to the limit in terms of payload, look for safe, light grippers. If your facility already has clean compressed air, you could consider deploying a pneumatic gripper. Some grippers require an external power supply too, which should be factored into your plans. When it comes to gripper selection, the type of cardboard your product is packed into also makes a difference. Wrinkled and lightweight cardboard is beyond the capabilities of some grippers, so be sure to check that the gripper you select can easily handle the required cardboard type.

Footprint:  In a well-designed cobot palletizing application, the item taking up the most space is not the automation: it’s the pallet. With space at a premium in most production facilities, footprint is a key consideration. With the majority of palletizing applications incorporating dual-pallet setups –so that the cobot can continue palletizing on a second pallet, while it waits for its first completed pallet to be collected— as a general rule, you should aim for a footprint that’s as little over two pallets in size as possible.

The company RNB Cosméticos has integrated six Universal Robots UR10 robot arms into its packing and packaging plant to perform end-of-line pallet- izing tasks. The collaborative cells offer the company a high level of versa- tility to comply with its six-packages-per-minute production cycles, which require flexible solutions for adapting to over 350 different items. The cobots collaborate with the workers in the same workspace, freeing up staff from uncomfortable, repetitive and non-ergonomic tasks that involved carrying 7 kg packages, risking injuries and fatigue. Image Courtesy of Universal Robots

Stack patterns: Most facilities want to stack their pallets to the maximum height allowed in freight trucks and containers. It’s possible to deploy collaborative palletizing solutions without writing a single line of code by using palletizing software that provides automatic stack pattern (and path planning) features designed to take care of this issue for you.

Safety: Like all industrial automation, cobot-powered palletizing applications will require a risk assessment. Remember that cobots are speed and force limited though. So, depending on the layout of your facility and the payload of the application, guarding may not be required at all.

Choosing a configuration

Fixed pedestal configurations (sometimes known as fixed column configurations), in which the base of your cobot is fixed in place on a pedestal, is the low-cost way to configure a palletizing application. Despite its limitations, fixed pedestal configurations are well-suited to low-volume, low-throughput palletizing applications.

In vertical 7th axis palletizing setups, the base of your cobot can move up and down, extending its reach and enabling it to palletize at greater stack heights. Adding a vertical axis can add to the complexity of your palletizing project, so be sure to look out for systems that provide full hardware and software integration with your cobot.

Horizontal 7th axis configurations enable your cobot to move horizontally, which greatly expands its work envelope. This type of solution is typically deployed in larger facilities with the in-house resources to handle custom palletizing configurations.

About the author:
Joe Campbell is the head of strategic marketing and applications development for Universal Robots North America, where he is leveraging his 35+ years’ experience in the robotics and factory automation industry.  Prior to joining Universal, Joe was vice president sales & marketing for Swiss based gantry robot and track manufacturer Gudel.  Previous assignments include executive roles in sales, marketing, operations and customer service with industry leaders including ABB, KUKA, AMT and Adept.  Joe has also consulted to the industry on strategy, marketing, M&A and product development.

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