Manufacturers are seeking new ways to meet market-driven production challenges on their packaging lines, and robotics is playing an increasing role. But robots must be adaptable and easy to program.
According to the PMMI, the Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies, at least 75% of manufacturing end users have installed robots on their lines. If packaging represents a small portion of total robot sales, per PMMI’s latest report, growth is significant: robotic usage on primary packaging operations is expected to reach 20% in 2018 (up from 8% in 2013).
The in-house technical expertise of food, consumer goods and pharmaceutical industries lags that of more experienced industries, such as the automotive and electronics sectors. For such latter-day adopters, says Dean Elkins, general manager of Motoman Robotics and former chair of the Robotics Industry Association:
Robots need to be easier to program, much more adaptable to change and better able to help with track-and-trace products in the food industry and, especially, with serialization coming to pharmaceuticals.
When implemented worldwide, serialization (giving a unique serial number to a product) will enable to fight drug counterfeiting by organized crime.
Lorillard Tobacco produces 40 billion cigarettes a year. To solve product tracking issues at its Greensboro, North Carolina facility, the company recently replaced two conventional high-speed palletizers fed by 36 production lines with 18 Intelligrated Alvey robotic palletizing cells. Each employs a Motoman MPL160 four-axis robotic arm and serves two production lines. Daniel Walker, staff engineer at the plant:
"In the past, cases from the lines were all mixed together on a single pallet [and there were] many miles of case conveyor."
The old, complicated system led to palletizing of cases from numerous production lines. The upgrade to robotics, with new controls and integrated barcode readers, enables the plant to ensure that each pallet contains cases from a single line, allowing operators to rapidly track and identify product down to a single case, and quickly trace defects to the line causing the defect.