Robotics and smart automation solutions are innovating and improving processes in many industries, and manufacturing is one of them. Packaging in particular is an area in which technologies are emerging to automate traditionally manual processes and add other efficiencies to systems, with robotic and intelligent automation capabilities becoming available to improve how things are done across the production and supply chains.
Both traditional automation companies and startups are developing technologies to improve processes on the factory floor, while smart sensors and other Internet of Things (IoT)-related technologies are improving how products are handled during transport and across the supply chain.
However, though these technologies exist, manufacturers still aren’t taking full advantage of the opportunities available to automate and improve the way products from food to pharmaceuticals are being packaged and processed, according to Ross Kozarsky, analyst for Lux Research.
Soft robotic gripper technology from Soft Robotics is used to sort bagels for packaging. The technology out of Harvard University provides robotic automation for previously manual processes because of its ability to delicately handle a variety of items.
“The packaging industry has only just scratched the surface of employing available emerging technologies, as many applicable innovations are currently being targeted primarily for other industries,” he said. “Similarly, packaging presents an enormous opportunity to technology developers, but one that thus far has largely gone underutilized.”
Kozarsky noted a number of next-generation IoT-related technologies that are emerging to help make packaging processes more efficient. Among them are sensor innovations that are improving how goods are transported, such as cold-chain data-logging products with lower price points and smaller form factors; temperature logging at the individual project packaging level; and smart packaging connected to the Internet for a variety of uses.
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Smart packaging solutions also are finding their way into the process chain, he said. “Flexible RFIDs are starting to see item-level adoption in high-value products, such as medicine and liquor, for anti-counterfeiting and sending marketing information,” Kozarsky said. “Additionally, printed touch sensors enable live interaction with consumers on the package, and low power reflective displays are used in electronic shelf labels to provide real-time information about the products.”
Robotics to Automate Manual Tasks
Technology providers, however, have a slightly different perspective on the robotics and automation innovations that are currently available to them for packaging applications. They report these technology making improvements in two key areas of production -- mechanical processes and control systems.
One new key innovation that can improve mechanical packaging processes comes out of research developed at Harvard University for a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) robotics challenge and then commercialized by a company called Soft Robotics.
The technology is an octopus-inspired soft robotic gripper that can handle delicate, oddly shaped, and a varied array of objects that previously only could be moved and packaged using manual labor, said Carl Vause, CEO of Soft Robotics.