Palletizing and De-Palletizing Applications

May 23, 2012

Palletizing and de-palletizing bags of dog food, courtesy FANUC Robotics America Corp. by Bennett Brumson , Contributing Editor
Robotic Industries Association

Robotics have been a staple of manufacturing for decades. Improvements to end-of-arm tooling, software, and vision systems have pushed flexible robotics downstream of manufacturing to perform palletizing and de-palletizing tasks. Subsequent to manufacturing, robots also apply packaging and ready these packaged goods for transport by stacking assemblies onto pallets for distribution.

“I see exciting developments in logistics and distribution applications. Recent enhancements of software and gripping technology help assemble unique, custom built-to-order pallet loads of different size items,” says Richard Motley, Senior Account Manager at FANUC Robotics America Corp. (Rochester Hills, Michigan).

The proliferation of new packaging and the ergonomics of palletizing and de-palletizing jobs provides manufacturers and distributors increased incentives to deploy robotics. Palletizing and de-palletizing applications show promise for continued growth within the robotics industry.

From Hard to Flexible Automation
Conventional palletizing systems have dominated the market for decades but integrators see a trend moving towards robotics, says Terry Zarnowski, Schneider Packaging Equipment Co. Inc.‘s (Brewerton, New York) Sales and Marketing Director. “The biggest trend we see is a movement towards robotics from conventional palletizers. Robotic palletizers provide flexibility and the ability to palletize different stock-keeping units (SKU) with minimal or no change over. Existing conventional palletizers are aging and we have been getting more requests from our customers to replace conventional systems with robotics.” Conventional palletizers cannot handle multiple SKUs effectively.

Until relatively recently, Zarnowski says, a manufacturing line ran a dedicated product over the course of several years. “Now, we see much shorter runs of products that might be on the market for only a year or two. The manufacturer will change something about the product or it’s packaging to make that product more marketable to consumers.” Those changes require flexibility, a feature most old-style conventional palletizers lack, says Zarnowski. “Palletizing and de-palletizing applications have really taken off and is the largest growth sector of our business. We have shipped hundreds of robots for these applications in recent years.”

As conventional palletizers make way for robot-based palletizing and de-palletizing, the process is less centralized using smaller robots. “We see the decentralization of palletizing and much more end-of-line palletizing. We see the movement towards this configuration and a movement away from the traditional configuration that used bigger robots in large-scale palletizing work cells,” notes Rick Tallian, Consumer Industry Manager at ABB Inc. (Auburn Hills, Michigan). “This configuration allows end-users more versatility in system design and reduces material handling expenditures on equipment such as conveyors.”

New Packages for New Products
The inherent flexibility of robotics lends itself to the rapid growth in handling new packaging designs, says Earl Wohlrab, Palletizing and Robotics Systems Product Manager with Intelligrated Systems Inc. (St. Louis, Missouri). “Packaging types have changed quite a bit over the last several years. These new packages are increasingly difficult to handle. Packaging is moving away from rigid corrugate casing.”

Wohlrab says more environmentally friendly packaging with more desirable graphics for consumers continues to impact the palletizing and de-palletizing market. “Those changes lead people towards robotics.” The speed of robotics is always increasing and will soon rival conventional case palletizers when manipulating less rigid packaging, Wohlrab concludes.

Likewise, Thomas Herndon, General Manager at FIPA Inc. (Cary, North Carolina) speaks of future products wrapped in new packaging types that robots will be called on to handle. “New packing designs and new products have to be handled somehow. The people who design new packaging intended to catch a consumer’s eye are not the ones who design the machine that will pick it up. Packaging materials are changing, becoming more porous due to the use of recycled products. Consumers want green packaging.”

Herndon turns his attention to new pallet designs. “The pallets themselves have changed, with less wooden and more plastic pallets. New style pallets for frozen foods allow air circulation throughout to ensure the product on the pallet is frozen evenly.” Like new packaging designs, Herndon says developers of new pallets did not consider how plastic pallets will be handled. “Some plastic pallets are just a grate, which are difficult to grab by the edges if wedged next to each other.” These grate-like pallets cannot be grasped by vacuum grippers but require more complex expansion grippers for manipulation, Herndon says.

Traditional wood pallets can simply be lifted from the top by vacuum-actuated foam grippers, explained Herndon.

Similarly, Sridhar Karnam, Product Marketing Manager at Adept Technology Inc. (Pleasanton, California) talks about changing pallet configurations. “Pallets are getting smaller. Each production line is not only capable of processing parts but palletizing them for shipment. In the last few years, end-users have been asking for palletizing robotic systems for food packaging applications.”

Robotics and compliant end-of-arm tooling facilitate manipulating products not yet in production nor in the marketplace. “Robotics help in planning for the future for products not in the pipeline yet. We cannot imagine new products to be introduced in five years. Manufacturers need a tool able to handle those future products,” says Herndon.

Beverage case robotically palletized, courtesy Schmalz Inc.Flexible robotics require flexible, adaptable grippers, says William Symanski, an Applications Engineer with Schmalz Inc. (Raleigh, North Carolina). “Universal tools are designed to handle a wider range of products and have better palletizing software. Distribution centers require multiple ways of gripping up to 20,000 SKUs. One tool is able to handle an entire pallet layer of products.”

Grippers must not only deal with a high mix of products that might change frequently, but also extremely irregular shapes, says Lisa Maitre, Senior Project Engineer with Kawasaki Robotics (USA) Inc. (Wixom, Michigan). “Advancements in the of flexibility of robot tooling for palletizing has greatly benefited palletizing applications. New styles of vacuum tooling using foam pads instead of suction cups makes possible the use of the same tool for a broad range of products, including non-uniform products.”

Load, Unload
Increasingly powerful vision systems play an important role in palletizing and de-palletizing applications, especially the latter, says Motley. “Vision plays a big role in guiding the robot in de-palletizing applications. The robot can de-palletize by layer or pick items individually.” Motley says while vision is also used in palletizing work cells, vision is less important due to products having a more well-known location through the use of conveyors and bar codes.

Tom Sipple, Material Handling Product Marketing Manager at the Motoman Robotics Division of Yaskawa America, Inc. (Miamisburg, Ohio) has a similar take on the function of vision in de-palletizing work cells. “Vision does not play much of a part in palletizing but is a big part of de-palletizing. When bringing in layers of product into a de-palletizing work cell, the vision system takes an image to locate products and guides the robot into the ideal position for de-palletizing.” Vision is a powerful part of the solution in de-palletizing applications, concludes Sipple.

Products often shift location on a pallet during transportation, making robotic de-palletizing more challenging upon arrival, points out Robert Rochelle, Food and Packaging Industry Specialist at Stäubli Corp. (Duncan, South Carolina). “Vision is a necessity in de-palletizing operations as product shifts in transit. Vision can eliminate the need for conveyor crowders or to sort a variable product mix on an in-feed sorting device.”

When building a mixed pallet, the robot’s software algorithm should take into account unloading sequences, says Sipple. “Robotic technology can deliver mixed product pallets, although the throughput is not as high as conventional palletizing systems. When putting mixed products onto a pallet, the robot software must consider many factors, such as the ideal unloading sequence, products subject to crushing, stability and how irregularly shaped products can be stacked.” To illustrate his point, Sipple warns against placing canned goods atop of bread.

Skill-Building
Robot users and integrators have several opportunities to educate themselves on palletizing and de-palletizing applications. Adil Shafi, President of ADVENOVATION Inc. (Houghton, Michigan) will conduct a one-hour webinar, Palletizing/De-palletizing-Robot Basics, beginning at 12:00 PM EDT on Thursday, May 24.

“The webinar will cover flexible tooling, hard tooling, mechanical, vacuum, vision and traceability. The webinar will show several application videos of how these things work,” Shafi said in previewing the webinar. “I will present a background of the topic of palletizing and de-palletizing, through application videos, a brief power-point presentation, and a panel discussion.” Shafi will tailor the webinar for both palletizing and de-palletizing experts as well as novices alike. The webinar will look at single product and mixed-load palletizing, order flow and fulfillment, throughput, among other subjects.

Players in the robotics market have another opportunity to find the latest and greatest products in palletizing and de-palletizing applications at Automate 2013. Automate, the premier trade show and conference for all things robotic, is co-located with ProMat at Chicago’s McCormick Place, January 21-24, 2013. These shows promise to be a one-stop shopping venue for manufactures’ automation needs.

“Schneider will show our newer palletizing products, including a high-level robotic palletizer. This system takes up minimal floor space and palletizes at very high speeds,” says Zarnowski. “The work cell is a hybrid of the best attributes of a high-level conventional palletizer and the best attributes of a robotic palletizer: flexibility, speed, compactness, and ease of use that our customers want.”

Several participating companies will have a presence in both Automate and ProMat. “Schmalz will have booths at both Automate and ProMat. We will show universal tooling, systems with a wider work envelope, to handle a wider range of products,” foretells Volker Schmitz, President of Schmalz.

Building an Application
Ergonomic issues of workers lifting and reaching comprise incentives for manufacturers and distributors to consider investing in robotics for palletizing and de-palletizing applications. “Palletizing is a repetitive task, an ergonomic concern. Throughput with a robot is much higher than with a person using a lift assist,” says Maitre.

In a similar vein, Motoman’s Tom Sipple says, “Handling cases over a day means handling a lot of weight. Distributors have great difficulty to get and retain people to work in these conditions. Turnover rates are very high as are the costs of training and retraining workers. Just one back injury can cost as much as one robotic palletizing system.”

Palletizing and de-palletizing applications are a continuing bright spot for the robotics industry. “Palletizing and de-palletizing applications are definitely a growth area. In 2009, the whole robotics industry declined by 50 percent. Despite that decline, palletizing and de-palletizing applications grew by 3.5 percent,” recollects Adept’s Sridhar Karnam. “This application grows by as much as seven percent a year and we see five to seven percent growth in palletizing and de-palletizing applications in the next five years.”

Read the article at its original posting here.


Robots Assist Farmers in the Agricultural Industry

May 18, 2012

Robots are a staple in the food and beverage industry, especially when it comes to sorting, picking, and packaging. However, how often do you see a robot working at the start of the production process, outside of the factory and on the farm?

From Science Fiction To Fact, Robots Are Coming To A Farm Near You
by Jeremy Bernfeld

[S]ome dairies are trying out new milking technology. It goes beyond just a little attachment to a cow’s udder that squeezes the milk out. This takes it a step further, using a robotic arm to prepare and clean the udders, attach the milking equipment, and monitor the cow’s health. (Check out the cool video here)

Robot technologies like these can buy farmers a little more time off.

“Just this past Christmas we had a customer of ours that had started up two of our (robotic milkers) with their herd,” says Mark Futcher, product manager for an automatic milking machine made by DeLaval. “That Christmas morning was the first time that gentleman had ever been witness to his children finding their Christmas stockings.”

Read the full article here on Capital Public Radio. What other ways can robots help out our farmers?


RIA Announces First Certified Robot Integrators

May 15, 2012

(Ann Arbor, Michigan) JR Automation, Motion Controls Robotics, Tennessee Rand, and Wolf Robotics are the first four robotic integrators to receive the new Certified Robot Integrator designation from the Robotic Industries Association (RIA), the industry’s trade group.

“We are very excited to announce this first group of Certified Robotic Integrators,” said Jeff Burnstein, President of RIA.  “In order to become certified, integrators go through a rigorous process which includes an on-site audit, safety training and hands-on testing of key personnel among other important criteria.  Based on feedback from the industry, we believe that achieving certification will be valuable to integrators looking to showcase their capabilities and experience to users and suppliers alike.

“Additionally, the program allows integrators to benchmark their own processes against best industry practices, allowing them to identify areas in which they can improve.  This also helps the industry by strengthening the overall integrator channel,” Burnstein explained.

The new RIA Certified Robot Integrator program was officially announced in late January at the Robotics Industry Forum in Orlando.   Burnstein said several other integrators are in the process of becoming certified, with three already slated for audits in the next several weeks.

Each certified integrator will need to be recertified every two years.  Detailed information on the certification program and the certified robot integrators can be found on a special section of Robotics Online.  Integrators interested in becoming certified also can contact Jeff Burnstein at 734/994-6088.

Here is what each of the first four Certified Robot Integrators said about the program:

JR Automation, Holland, Michigan
“We feel the investment in this testing process is well worth the value it will provide to our customers. The testing highlighted our ISO9001:2008 procedures; which we feel will ensure future success of our company. JR Automation believes this certification will help companies identify sources for automated/robotic equipment as well as supporting customers with their service needs,” said Bill Yeck, General Manager, JR Automation.

Motion Controls Robotics, Fremont, Ohio
“At times it can be difficult to convey to a potential customer the depth of experience and qualifications of our organization.  Achieving Certified Integrator status from RIA demonstrates our expertise and allows our customers to make a more informed supplier selection based on the findings of an independent third party. We are especially pleased to be among the first group of robotic integrators to earn this certification.  Our Certified Integrator status provides another reason why Motion Controls Robotics, Inc. is the right choice when selecting a robotic integration partner,” said Scott Lang, President, Motion Controls Robotics.

Tennessee Rand, Chattanooga, Tennessee
“We are excited to be one of the first groups of integrators to be certified by the RIA. The RIA is a great organization with an outstanding reputation in our industry. Being certified through the RIA provides our customers and potential customers with a peace of mind that they are working with a company that can meet their needs and sets us apart from the competition,” said Don Peters, Executive Vice President, Tennessee Rand, Inc.

Wolf Robotics, Ft. Collins, Colorado
“Wolf Robotics is proud to be recognized as a Certified Robotic Integrator by the Robotic Industries Association.  Having our robotic expertise and all-inclusive internal programs of training, support and continual improvement recognized is very gratifying and important.  The process is very extensive and requires integrators to demonstrate that specific areas of capabilities and experience are present and ever-improving.  Meaningful certification criteria will assist users in selecting a dependable, experienced and capable integrator to insure a successful robotic integration of their projects,” said Darren Pape Operations Manager at Wolf Robotics.

Founded in 1974, RIA now represents more than 280 robot manufacturers, system integrators, component suppliers, end user, consulting firms, research groups, and educational institutions.  RIA is best known for its biennial Automate Show & Conference (next event slated for January 21-24, 2013 in Chicago); the ANSI/RIA National Robot Safety Standard and annual National Robot Safety Conference (September 24-26, 2012 in Indianapolis); and the annual Robotics Industry Forum (February 20-22, 2013, Orlando).  The association also provides quarterly robotics statistics and has a content-rich Robotics Online website attracting hundreds of thousands of visits a year from throughout the world.  For more details on RIA, visit www.robotics.org or call 734/994-6088.

“Robotics customers, of course, still need to conduct their own due diligence on the suppliers they select,” said Burnstein.  “RIA cannot guarantee the work of any integrator or recommend which integrators to choose.  We have more than 50 system integrator members and look forward to having more of them go through the certification process in the near future.”

Read the original press release here.


The White House’s Eyes are on Robotics

May 2, 2012

Charles Thorpe, the White House’s man on robotics and a speaker at the 2012 Robotics Industry Forum, and Andrew Borene recently gave an interview on the future of robotics and the White House’s actions to continue robotics industry development.

Robotics and more U.S. jobs

by Neal St. Anthony

Q How does this tie into job creation?

A Advanced manufacturing [companies] are making our highways safer, our brave soldiers safer [with ground robots and aerial drones] our manufacturing more competitive and our workers more productive. These are growth companies. We in the United States have a wonderful record of inventing things, but not as good a record of keeping manufacturing and jobs in the U.S. We can compete with [Chinese and other low-cost factories] with smart tools, better-educated and more-productive workers.

These are not our fathers’ manufacturing jobs that just require strong backs and effort and a good work ethic. We need to make sure today’s workforce learns the math and science and gets the training to be CNC machine operators. [Baby boomers] all had shop class. We learned to work on stuff. Today’s kids don’t get that opportunity. The cars work better. And kids don’t tinker as much. We need to re-energize invention and tinkering and the skills to play with things and invent and build prototypes.

Read more of the interview here at the Star Tribune. Do you think the White House is looking down the right roads of advanced manufacturing?