Packaging robots have been designed to replace human labor, albeit with superhuman strength, agility, and speed. The range of movement, strength, and speed allow these machines to lift entire pallets onto trucks or pick up individual muffins hot out of the oven.
These robots were on display at PackExpo in Las Vegas last month. The entire tradeshow floor was alive with robotic movement. The robots were amazingly agile, surprisingly strong, and unexpectedly quiet.
This is the new manufacturing workforce. These machines are so efficient, they have reduced the importance of cheap labor as a factor in whether a plant is built in China or Ohio. While they reduce the manual workforce, they come with a small army of engineers. For the new engineer they are especially attractive, since running these robots can be done through simulation -- much like playing a video game.
Click on the image below to start the slideshow:
Here’s the claw end of a robot arm. ABB’s FlexGripper can be adjusted to pick up a wide range of items, large or small. (Source: ABB)
When it was in Chicago last year (Pack Expo rotates between Chicago and Las Vegas), the noticeable aspect of the show was the robotics. Walking the floor, it would be easy to think you're at a robotics show.
"It was quite a sight to see a whole landscape of packaging robots at PackExpo. The robots have taken over this industry."
Rob, now in most of the companies they have a separate engineering division by name 'packing engineering '. The main aim/goal of such units are minimizing the volume packing and increasing the saftey. I am not sure how this will help for the robotics era.
My Design, safety was one of the selling points at Pack Expo. The servo drives and safety programs tied to individual robots seem to be an advancement in safety. The virtual light curtains and instant halt seem to be taking safety to a new level.
"Packaging robots have been designed to replace human labor, albeit with superhuman strength, agility, and speed. The range of movement, strength, and speed allow these machines to lift entire pallets onto trucks or pick up individual muffins hot out of the oven."
Rob, thanks for the update. Packing holds a major profile in logistics and shipment domain. The security of the shipped items depends up on packing and hence companies are spending more time and money for strong packing. I think robots can do the same work without much effort and time.
Good point, Mydesign. It does look like companies are putting more emphasis on packing. And while the robots reduce the need for manual labor, they do employ engineers. They also reduce the differential between labor costs in Asia and the rest of the world. Thus, logistics costs may trump labor as the expense to watch -- that helps fuel the trend toward buiulding plants close to markets.
MyDesign, I think robots really help in reducing the power of labor to determine everything in where stuff is built. If logistics costs play a bigger role than labor, it's natural that manufacturing moves closer to markets. A side benefit would be energy savings and environmental gains.
Robotics may be the future, but to get there the country needs engineers. Those engineers need to learn the basics like dynamics, mechanics of materials. There's no magical way to jump over those. Lack of understanding how a robotic arm can handle a payload's inertia can lead to disaster. Basic engineering has to come first before making the robot move.
Very nice showcase of packaging robotics technology. If these robots are installed and operated safely, they can also help reduce injuries in the workplace (by eliminating the need for a human to perform repetitive lifting tasks). These added benefits are also attractive to decision makers in management when evaluating these types of investments.
Good points, Greg. As for safety, the move to robots tends to improve safety. for one, a virtual safety network can be set around the robot. Also, because of the servo technology, the robots stop instantly -- no gearing down. At the show, folks at the booths showed the safety by sticking their hands in the path of the speedy robot. With the safety breech, the robot would freeze instantly.
Greg--very important point. I have two clients who have "fought the good fight" relative to process producing carpal tunnel syndrome for workers. The work accomplished is repetitive, high-speed, and extremely tiring. One client rotates his employees in this work cell every two hours to alleviate stress to wrists and shoulders. For the other client, the injuries were so numerous he finally decided to use a specially designed robotic system. This system was welcomed by the employees who became operators of the system and not hands-on workers within the cell. Prevention of injuries and cost of medical care are uppermost in the minds of most CEOs and certainly most CFOs.
As a robot programmer with my previous company, I got to learn a bit about robotics. (Well, I still fool with them here, but only in maintenance aspects usually.)
The ABB FlexPicker is really amazing. Watching the youtube video of it picking up widgets off of a conveyor and putting them onto another conveyor in an endless cycle at amazingly high speed is really mesmerizing to watch.
The end tooling / gripper is usually one of the limiting factors in robotics use. Some items just don't pick up well with robots. One of the most incredible grippers to see is a "Jamming Phase Transition" gripper. It's basically a balloon filled with coffee grounds, and the balloon can have a vacuum applied. The gripper is placed against an item and a vacuum applied, which makes the device rigid, which conforms to what it was pressed against. You really have to see this to believe it, and here's a video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZKOI_lVDPpw
I haven't seen any industrial applications of this technology yet, but I hope it will eventually happen.
As for the human-safe robots, the Baxter seems more like a toy without the ability to reach pre-programmed points with accuracy. The Universal Robotics devices seem more like industrial robots. I played with a UR-5 at a trade-show and was impressed with it. I tested it running into my arm and it was a bizarre to me considering that I'm used to working with giant robots which would crush me. The reach and payload capacity of their two models aren't good enough for any of my applications yet, but I'd love to get one in my plant somehow.
Thanks for the info and video, Jim E. I was quite improssed at PackExpo by the safety features of the robots. You could put your hand in the path of the robot and it would stop instantly. Now gearing down, jut an instant stop. Most robot producers are touting higher levels of safety.
Rob, you slide show brought back memories, and not all good ones. Several years ago, I received a call from Bendix Automotive, their break pad division. I was asked to look at designing a robotic system to move brake pads from one conveyor line to another line for the purpose of baking. I used a "gripper" for that purpose BUT, this was during the mid-80s and long before the technology was fully developed. The forces were either too strong, thus breaking the pads or too light, dropping the pads during movement from one line to the other. It was a bear of a project.
It amazes me that devices such as shown in you slides can pick up 15,000 eggs per hour with ease and probably minimal damage. Shows us how far the technology has come.
Both traditional automation companies and startups are developing technologies to improve processes on the factory floor, while smart sensors and other IoT-related technologies are improving how products are handled during transport and across the supply chain.
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