In the present state of the manufacturing, agriculture, mining, retail, and logistics industries there exists a rapidly growing requirement for increased operational speed and efficiency. As operations grow, expand and flex to accommodate customer requirements, it’s become increasingly clear that the required production line throughput, efficiency and responsiveness to sustain growth and customer satisfaction are impeded by available warehouse space, labour shortages, looming WHS concerns, production line bottlenecks, and processes to mitigate product damage, to name a few.
For these reasons, organisations struggling with these impediments have increasingly automated end-of-line and distribution processes to increase line efficiencies.
As market demand and industry competition continue to place increased emphasis on faster fulfilment cycles, manufacturers, retailers and logistics organisations are under pressure to not only meet these demands but also future-proof their operations by automating processes.
According to the International Federation of Robotics, the resulting adoption of automation technologies has spurred substantial industry growth in packaging robotics, with the market being valued at $2.47 billion in 2016 and projected to reach $4.64 billion by 2023. By application, this category is segmented into packing robots, palletising robots, and picking robots. The palletising robot segment accounts for the largest market share, due to huge industry demand for the loading and unloading of goods. This is because automating palletising processes is a proven way of removing a commonplace and significant bottleneck in many production systems.
This aforementioned projection clearly predicts that an increasing number of organisations will employ robotics to attain smarter, more efficient fulfilment cycles; while those organisations that fail to adopt robotics may begin experiencing increasing difficulty to remain competitive.
While it’s no secret that robotics technologies automate repetitive, time-consuming, and tiring manual tasks and enable any enterprise to increase productivity, product quality and efficiencies that lead to lower costs, increased profitability and customer satisfaction, and reduced WHS risks; what is less understood are the processes involved in designing and commissioning a robotic system that realises operational objectives. Or how to calculate your likely rapid return on investment.
Robot Technologies-Systems Australia (RTA) is committed to helping organisations within the manufacturing, logistics and supply chain industries to remain competitive in an increasingly competitive global market and in doing so we have created this guide for industry stakeholders.
This guide is designed to provide industry leaders:
- An overview of palletising automation technologies, both past and present
- How these technologies can be incorporated into production lines, and
- How to identify and quantify all sources of increased profits, cost savings and operational improvements.
The Age of Automation
The demand for efficient methods of palletising began with the introduction of the first packaging line. The first method employed by organisations to increase palletising throughput was to simply increase the number of workers stacking pallets. In operations where the product weight was high, as is the case with most manufacturing and agricultural operations, workers on palletising lines would fatigue and this would result in slowing throughput until they were relieved by fresh teams of workers. As worker fatigue increased nearing the end of a shift, so too would their exposure to WHS safety risks, the incidence of errors, and product damage. These recurrent issues necessitated the development of a mechanical system that would be used in place of, or in collaboration with, human operators. This resulted in the development of the first mechanical semi-automated palletising system that was introduced in the early 1950s.
This system – the row-forming automatic palletising system – palletises products by employing the following process: products are fed into the system using an infeed conveyor; the cases or bags arrive at an end-stop and are arranged against each other to form a row (the row-forming area); the row is then shunted onto a layer-forming table whereby a complete layer is formed, row by row, and then placed by the system on top of the pallet, layer by layer, until a full pallet is completed. The completed pallet can then be received by a forklift for further application.
The second-generation mechanical system, arriving 20 years later, would accommodate the rising demands for higher throughput by continuing to utilise the row-then-layer formation process but with the addition of incorporating in-line and continuous-motion infeed conveyors, automating the orientation process of product into rows resulting in higher throughput. These systems came to be known as low-level (or floor-level) palletisers, to differentiate from the eventual high-level palletisers, due to the pallet remaining stationary on the floor while completed product layers are raised to be placed (up-stacking) on top of the partially completed pallet. The high-level palletiser would see the same layer-forming process in the form of infeed conveyors, automated product orientation, row formation and subsequent layer formation, but would differ from the low-level palletiser in its pallet filling process. The pallet would instead be lowered with each formed layer (down-stacking) and would afford the high-level palletisers higher throughput, a smaller warehouse footprint, and greater production plant operational flexibility.
A robot control system with a built-in palletising function makes it possible to load and unload an object without spending a lot of time on teaching. Robotic work cells can be integrated towards any project. With current advancements in end-of-arm tooling (EOAT), robot palletising work cells have been introduced to many factory floors.
Robot Palletisers Overview
As robotics technology has evolved to better suit varying industrial manufacturing operations, the capabilities of the robot arm have become sophisticated and robust enough to be used as an effective palletiser and address the 3 key challenges involved in automating palletising processes, namely: pallet pattern flexibility, tooling flexibility, and cycle time.
Today there exists 3 main varieties of robot palletisers, these being: Cartesian (linear), SCARA (Selective Compliant Articulated Robot Arm), and Articulated.
Cartesian: These robotic palletisers utilise three principal axes of control and move linearly: up-down, in-out, and back-forth. They aren’t typically ideal for high volume palletising operations (maximise around 10 cases per minute) given their limited operational space and flexibility for palletising operations. These robotic palletisers can also be incorporated into a gantry for large and multiple SKU handling but at the cost of significant warehouse space usage.
SCARA: The Selective Compliant Articulated Robot Arm (SCARA) palletisers have significantly higher operational throughput than the cartesian, are typically limited to SKU weights of up to 20kg, and move within the same three principal axes as the Cartesian arms but with added rotary arm functionality. SCARA palletisers are well suited for multiple lane production lines.
Articulated: The articulated robotic palletiser is the most versatile and flexible robot available for production line applications. The articulated arm movement is non-linear, can potentially move about with six degrees of freedom, has high cycle times, can manage payloads of up to 1,000kg and also manage the movement of production multiple production lines at a time, and much more.
For these reasons, we will reference the articulated arm robotic palletiser for the remainder of the guide.
Palletising robots are specifically designed for high-speed, heavy payload, and long-reach palletising applications, and come equipped with a range of components, accessories and flexible software options that enable operators to rapidly generate pallet patterns, accommodate product changeovers, handle multiple SKUs and monitor the status of the palletising system. They possess payload capacities that range from 80kg to 1,000kg to suit most needs, and can perform cycles of such as fast as 2,050 cycles per hour with loads of 130 kg, depending on stacking patterns, requirements, product weight, and if the robot is picking a single product, rows of product, or full layer of products.
The high payload capabilities and flexibility of modern palletising robots allow for multiple product picks and complete pallet layer handling, resulting in fewer cycles per completed pallet.
Furthermore, the high vertical reach capability of some palletising robots, such as those manufactured by Kawasaki are ideal for tall pallet creation and multi-lane applications where the robot is required to reach over incoming and outgoing production lines. The extra-long horizontal reach allows for one robot to be used in applications where five or more outgoing pallet lanes are required.
Robotic System Components
End effectors / end-of-arm-tools (EOAT)
While the robot itself is important, it is not actually the most important element in a robot automation system. The most essential element of an automated system is the end-of-arm tooling. End-of-arm tooling is the mechanism that is mounted to your robot—it is the item that handles the products. The end-of-arm tools for a robotic palletiser are always intended to best capture and manipulate a product (or series of products). Due to the amount of available end-of-arm tools, we carefully and strategically work with your products to best provide you with the correct end-of-arm tools.
A variety of end of arm tools (EOAT), also known as end effectors, are available for use with each robotic palletiser. The EOAT are designed to ensure each palletisation application is completed in the most effective and efficient way. The EOAT configurations most used for palletising operations are:
- 2-Jaw Gripper: A parallel motion gripper that utilises two ‘fingers’ to compress, grip, and manipulate an object through pneumatic or electrical actuation. Best suited to single case picking execution, typically with rotary functionality, and high throughput.
- Vacuum Gripper: An end effector that utilises vacuum gripping to precisely handle SKUs that aren’t rigid enough for conventional compression gripping. Capable of handling multiple SKUs at once with high precision and throughput.
- Suction Gripper: A gripper that utilises an array of vacuum cups to handle SKUs. Favourable for large SKUs with uniform surfaces with which to grip, and can handle multiple SKUs at once via dual-gripping functionalities.
- Finger Gripper: A parallel supportive gripper that consists of two parallel rows of tines or ‘fingers’ to horizontally secure the SKU, with the fingers extending under the SKU to secure it from the bottom as well. Single case picking capabilities, moderate throughput, and ideal for fragile SKUs.
- Fork Gripper: Very similar to the finger gripper, except with one row of tines or ‘fingers’ that extend the entire horizontal length of the EOAT. Single case picking capabilities, moderate throughput, and ideal for SKUs that need to be supported from the bottom such as open-top containers or oversized bags. This type of gripper may also use a stripper plate to correctly position SKUs onto pallet stack.
Automated Process Controllers – Vision Systems
As retailer demands for mixed product pallets increase, the capabilities of robotic palletisers become more readily realised. Robotic palletising systems can be programmed and configured to incorporate mixed product pallets at the level of the individual product.
Early generation machine systems typically built mixed product pallets, but only at the level of the layer, which is to say each layer must contain the same product, but each layer can be built with a different product. This is distinct from the capabilities of robotic systems, as a single robot can assemble multiple pallets simultaneously, with mixed products at each layer.
Such functionality is due to robotic systems being able to now come equipped with advanced process controllers, such as vision systems, that enable the robot to make real-time picking, placement, and stacking adjustments. That is, they can build each layer with a mixture of products and can source these layers from multiple in-feed conveyors.
3D robot-vision and sensing systems allow for the transfer of multi-dimensional feedback on targets. This input is provided in a language that is instantly recognisable by the robotics system. It is essential in allowing for the intricate visual inspections that are integral in increasing the scope of robotic applications, enabling robots to take complex actions based on visual interaction with the target object.
New sensors consist of a camera that takes an image of the product, carton, box or bag. These images are then processed and analysed via a series of comparisons against pre-set parameters. This enables the robot to be easily automated and make real-time picking, placement and stacking adjustments and ‘decisions’.
And in a final coup for manufacturers, robots can now be programmed to perform a variety of functions, rather than just for a predefined single task. Thanks to the ability to store a number of programs in each robot’s memory, a robot is able to move between different tasks and perform different processes quickly. Alternatively, the advent of off-line programming and development of interfaces enables operators to effect programming changes without having to reach out to the robotic system integratorEnables quick changes to manage palletising of varied package sizes as changes are made in response to customer orders.
Changes in pallet stacking due to use of different pallet sizes, as per customer requirements – distinguish between domestic and international.
Offline programming (what is the interface we have developed for use with Kawasaki) – the ability for an operator to adjust processes to accommodate changes in the volume of product in bags that often occur at end of a run or due to atmospheric conditions
Removing Other Bottlenecks in The Palletising System
To gain maximum benefit from the use of a robot palletiser, it may be necessary to remove upstream and/or downstream bottlenecks in the production line. For example, if the output of a production line is channelled through a single infeed conveyor, rather than multiple infeed conveyors, the throughput of the palletising system will be constrained by this bottleneck. Similarly, common bottleneck downstream to the robot palletiser includes the use of manual pallet wrapping and pallet dispensing processes. These bottlenecks can be addressed by integrating an automated pallet wrapper and a pallet dispenser, respectively.
Additional in-feed conveyors
For operations that consist of, or will eventually include multiple in-feed product conveyors, robotic palletisers have the advantage of being able to easily incorporate these additional components into your overall packaging line. With robotic palletisers, you can bypass the need to funnel multiple product conveyors into a singular in-feed conveyor. Rather, you can have multiple in-feed conveyors that terminate at the point of direct palletisation by the robotic palletiser. Such capabilities can result in multiple in-feed lines, conveying different, varied and unique products, each of which originates from a different product source (truck, manual operator, etc), that can then be assembled into multiple completed pallets simultaneously.
Utilising Pallet Dispensers
Robotic palletisers can easily be programmed to incorporate pallets localised into pallet dispensers, ultimately enhancing the operational throughput of the system. Additionally, pallet dispensers are a highly effective way of securing your operators against safety risks by removing pedestrian traffic from the operational areas of a forklift.
Incorporating automated stretch wrappers
Once the robotic palletiser has assembled a completed pallet, the next step is to secure the pallet with adequate protective wrapping. This can be done manually by wrapping operators or can be done by incorporating an automated stretch wrapper to your packaging line. It’s a simple addition that can be installed as a part of a total packaging line solution or a bespoke and stand-alone addition. The advantage of these systems is that they not only secure your pallet in the most effective manner possible, but they also use less wrapping material due to pre-stretching capabilities that will greatly save your operations the material costs over time.
Additional Operational Benefits of a Robotic Palletiser
The Warehouse Footprint
Comparable to traditional low and high-feed palletising systems, the floor space required for a robotic palletiser is often less, owing to the general compatibility of the robotic palletising cell. In the case of multi-line in-feed conveyor operations, as these components often contribute to more occupied floor space than the palletising system itself, the space afforded by robotic palletisers over early generation systems can be the difference between being able to utilise an automated system with the multi-line in-feed conveyors and having to make conveying changes to utilise an automated system.
The inclusion of Multiple SKU Packaging Lines
Common to robotic palletising solutions is the easy adaptation to multi-SKU packaging lines and product changeovers. In the event of a product changeover, accomplishing this is an easy task through the flexibility afforded to robotic palletising units via various end-of-arm gripper tools and programmable SKU compatibilities. Including additional packaging lines is simple through programming the robot to utilise these additional packaging lines – warehouse space is the only impediment.
Robotic palletisers, unlike early generation palletisers, do not squeeze or apply horizontal pressure to the palletised layers or to the pallet as a whole. With lighter products this is especially important as the lack of structural rigidity renders these products susceptible to certain actions that are a component of the pallet stability process that early generation palletisers utilise. Robotic palletisers carefully handle each product and position them as per the required stacking pattern and so ensure load stability without horizontal pressure.
- Early generation systems typically have a more difficult time handling lower weight products and experience a higher incidence of damaging products.
- Early generation systems are less adequately positioned to properly handle shrink-wrapped or unusually shaped products, owing to the limitations of sweeping/orientation mechanisms. Effective product handling by a robotic palletiser exists in the end-of-arm-tools (EOAT) that can be used by the robotic palletiser.
The Consultation Process
Robotic system integrators analyse the business and system needs of end-users and provide a plan for automation, along with support for programming, commissioning, maintenance, and repair.
Systems integrators aid in merging robots, peripherals, and manufacturing machinery into a single unit for helping perform palletising tasks. Ultimately, robotics systems integrators help customers to transform their operations equipped with the latest industrial automation technologies.
For these reasons, RTA will undertake a thorough business analysis and strategic review of your company’s requirements.
This, of course, will inform the development of recommendations on how to apply robotic automation to realise your company’s business and operational objectives.
Our consultation process consists of four key phases:
- Review of your operation.
- Workflow analysis
- Peripheral equipment
- Cell design
Review of your operation
Firstly, we review your operation to determine requirements and if it is a good fit for robotics automation. This is crucial in determining if robotics is the right step for your company. To make this determination, we focus on 10 key considerations:
1 | What kind of products are you seeking to palletise? (bags, boxes, drums, containers, etc)
- The versatility provided by robotic palletisers with their range of end-of-arm tooling are exceptional for operations that have a wide range of SKUs.
2 | What is your required throughput?
- To remain competitive, or to evolve a competitive advantage, robotic palletising can deliver exceedingly high throughputs of up to and exceeding 3,000 cases per hour.
3 | What is your maximum product weight?
- For products that are up to 500kg, robotic palletisers can handle these effectively and efficiently, with 500kg loads still benefiting from 600 cycles/hour speeds.
4 | Are these products fragile and require careful handling?
- Similar to above, the variety of end-of-arm grippers can facilitate any kind of specialised SKU.
5 | How much space do you have available in your facility?
- Robotic palletisers have a smaller warehouse footprint than early generation machine palletisers. This is an important consideration in terms of overall operational fluidity as space within warehouses can be especially tight. With a smaller footprint, it also leaves room for expanding upon the initial implementation of the palletiser: incorporate additional infeed conveyors or multiple pallet building stations for increased throughput and flexibility.
6 | Do you have multiple infeed conveyors and/or products?
- If yes, robotic palletisers are an ideal supplement as they can be configured to receive product from multiple infeed conveyors and even build multiple pallets at a time with varying products from each conveyor. For the future addition of conveyinglinesthe roboticpalletisercan easily be configured to incorporate additional conveyors.
7 | How many different pallet sizes are you using?
- Utilising different sized pallets requires a simple configuration addition to accommodate the change in size that can be easily changed by the touch of a button via the pattern programming software.
8 | What are your future plans? Will you require flexibility or extra capacity?
- Robotic palletisers are the go-tochoice forfuture proofing your operations, given their exceptional operational flexibility and small warehouse footprint. If you’re exporting different size/shape/weight products on a regular basis, looking to incorporate more infeed conveyors or increase theamountof pallets being built at once to optimise your operations, robotic palletisers can easily accommodate.
9 | Do you want to also depalletise pallets?
- Given the handling precision and care that robotic palletisers afford, depalletisation of incoming pallets is as easy as setting the easy-to-configure palletisation software. This is especially useful in the case of heavy product pallets.
10 | What’s your budget?
- Robotic palletisers are in the same price range as early generation mechanical palletisers with the added benefit of having decreased maintenance costs (although more specialist technicians are required to maintain them) due to less moving parts and a higher operational lifespan.
By conducting these evaluations, we can provide you with an upfront review that eliminates any unnecessary investment. This process is quick and easy, as we can often evaluate parts through an electronic CAD drawing.
A robotic palletising system can significantly increase your operational throughput, so it’s important to consider how this will affect your system as a whole. For example, will your upstream manufacturing processes be able to deliver the necessary quantity to the robot? And, can downstream processes – pallet wrapping, storage, filtering, etc – accommodate the higher throughput at this point?
Workflow needs to continue to run smoothly or your investment in robotics could unintentionally slow down production by negatively altering your workflow. The first goal is always to improve production; total production, not just single-stage production.
RTA will work with you to determine the appropriate system accessories, including safety devices, the optimal layout for the robotic cell, training requirements, and service and maintenance regimes required to attain optimal performance.
Considering your requirements, we will work with you to identify the correct end-of-arm tools and other components.
The robotic cell encompasses the entire automated palletising system, consisting of the robot, controller and peripherals. A turnkey cell provides a fully-integrated, pre-configured solution. In designing the layout of your cell, consideration must be given to creating space for the work motion device, power source robot controller and wire feed package. The way the product is delivered to and leaves the area must also be considered. The key is always to create a cell layout that allows for workflow simplicity.
Calculating Return on Investment
It’s no secret that robotics technologies can automate repetitive, time-consuming manual tasks. In fact, robotics enable any enterprise to boost efficiencies productivity, quality and efficiency. All this leads to lower costs, increased profitability, improved customer satisfaction, and reduced WHS risk.
What is often less understood is how to calculate the rapid return on investment. For this reason, RTA has devised a framework to help businesses identify and quantify all the sources of increased profits, cost savings and operational improvements that are delivered by a welding robotics automation system. Discover more about calculating a robotics system return on investment.
Want to learn more about how RTA can help your company to realise all the benefits provided by automating your palletising processes? Contact the experts at RTA team for a free, no obligation feasibility study.