Automation Is Changing the Packaging World
One Robot at a Time
Here at Matthews Marking Systems, we’re still riding high from our time at Pack Expo 2022 in Chicago! Not only were we able to connect with clients and prospective customers, but we all were incredibly inspired by the innovations we witnessed, especially around automation and sustainability in packaging.
When it comes to AI and robotics, we saw a plethora of tools and resources designed to move products through the packaging process as quickly and efficiently as possible, regardless of payload, configuration and product shape/size. One key area that came up time and time again was how automation can address critical labor shortages in the manufacturing world without adding any burden to the existing production line workers. With more scalable, flexible, automated packaging systems coming to market, especially those that integrate across technologies, AI can create much more consistency, increase worker safety and reduce errors – from the first product down the line to the stacking, wrapping and labeling of pallets.
Automation doesn’t have to be rigid
Two keywords we heard at Pack Expo: flexible and scalable. With consumer needs and preferences constantly evolving at a rapid pace, manufacturers need to keep up and adapt in order to stay competitive. This means that any automated system on production lines must be able to be moved, reconfigured, scaled, and adapted quickly and efficiently. The changeover process between different products and lines must be seamless, otherwise productivity and performance suffers.
In addition, the ease with which operators can learn to swiftly shift robots and other automated tools from one task to another is critical both for speed of production and to minimize training and re-training. As such, clear and concise interfaces, along with voice and gesture commands, are quickly gaining ground.
Kawasaki Robotics was a highlight at the show, as its scalable technology is designed to address the issues above and help companies deal with supply chain and labor shortages. The two tools Kawasaki demoed at Pack Expo that caught our eye were the RPX-MAX palletizing cells and the CP180L robot, which offer fast palletizing rates and new levels of flexibility. Both robots are designed to ease the burden on already short-staffed production lines by offering multiple configurations for fast, heavy payload palletizing.
Meanwhile, Universal Robots and partner Robtiq showcased how the latest UR20 6-axis collaborative robot (cobot) can do more pallet loading work than ever before with a 30% increase in speed and torque, expanded payload capacity of 44.1 lbs and a reach of nearly six feet. With its extended reach, the UR20 can be used to stack across two standard U.S. pallets.
Using robots to package hard-to-handle products
CPG products come in all shapes and sizes, which can make the packaging process challenging when using robotics. While human hands can easily manipulate a wide variety of shapes and textures, robots have to be specially configured to gently handle packing items like bite-size potatoes, tortillas and baked goods.
Paxiom is one company we saw at Pack Expo that is addressing this need, showcasing an inverted flow wrapper machine that allows food manufacturers to package “hard to handle” items with more ease and consistency by feeding the film from below. This allows the product to remain safely intact throughout the entire packaging process, from wrapper to case packaging to pallet.
Another great example of innovation in this area is the mGrip soft gripper from Soft Robotics that employs an end-of-arm tool molded out of soft plastic guided by machine vision imaging. With the ability to control air pressure and grip, operators can quickly handle and pack delicate items without worry of damage or error. This speeds the overall shipping and delivery time, getting products through to the case packaging and palletizing part of the process with more ease and confidence.
Automation eases delivery of life saving vaccines
As you might guess, one of the areas we spent some quality time exploring was AI and robotics when it comes to labeling, coding and palletization. Specifically, the use of robotics in the pharmaceutical industry stood out, as it demonstrated how advancements in machine automation can get much needed vaccines and medicines out into the world faster and more efficiently.
As featured in the Sunday show daily for Pack Expo, the pharmaceutical industry as a whole is investing in next level machinery improvements, with an emphasis on “changeover, maintenance, vision inspection, robot control and operator safety” (33 percent of which is focused on robotic control). Supply chain issues and labor shortages have significantly impacted the necessary and timely delivery of critical medicines, so companies are looking to original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and other suppliers to help implement the above listed improvements. And as you can see from the below graphic, both palletization and labeling/coding made up almost 20 percent of the $800MM sales landscape in 2020, with an expected growth of 7.6 percent by 2026.
Palletizing and labeling machinery play an important role in bringing vaccines and medicines to market.
It goes without saying that we were intrigued to see what was on display around Pack Expo to support the needs of pharmaceutical companies.
One example is the packaging and distribution of COVID-19 vaccine vials, which clearly have had an urgency surrounding them since day one of the pandemic. With time of the essence, one contract manufacturing organization (CMO) partnered with ESS Technologies, an OEM focused on health sciences. Together they implemented a second production line that employed the use of a robotics system from FANUC America to erect and load cartons of vials coming off the production line. In addition, the flexibility and broad use of the FANUC robots allowed for greater integration across the production line, including case packing and palletization.
Robotic palletizing increases safety and precision
Stacking pallets may sound like a simple task. But in reality, it’s more like an intricate and potentially dangerous game of Jenga. Workers must consider the shape, size and weight of the boxes being stacked, along with their stability. All of this must be taken into account to ensure worker safety and reduce the risk of product damage.
Stacking pallets can feel like a dicey game of Jenga – one misplaced box can spell disaster.
As such, robotic palletization is critical to any automated packaging system because it allows operators to safely and precisely pinpoint the exact placement and confirmation of boxes on pallets without putting anyone – or anything – in harm’s way.
For instance, using AI-based software, the OptiStack tool from Schneider Packaging Equipment allows a group of multi-generational potato farmers based in California to “create recipes” for configuring effective patterns of stacked boxes on pallets to ensure optimal and safe placement. The end result is that the robotic palletizers reduce the amount of heavy lifting and manual labor the company’s employees must do, reducing the risk of accidents and injuries. In addition, operators can quickly change the patterns of stacked boxes as needed with minimal programming required, allowing the automated machines to place as many boxes as possible on pallets without affecting the end product.
Coming to the end: automating the coding and labeling process
The tail end of the packaging process contains a small but mighty step, and it’s one that – when done right – can save companies money, time and the heartache associated with rejected or lost products. Pallet labeling is part art and part science, as labels must be crisp, clear, placed correctly and not at risk of smudges, wrinkles or other defects. With precision being an integral part of this process, automation is the best way to ensure minimal errors and a high rate of delivery and traceability.
Combined with the scalable, extensible MPERIA platform, Matthews Marking System’s A-Series automatic pallet labeling system is the cherry on the automated packaging sundae. Setting a high standard for ease of operation, accuracy, speed and efficiency, the MPERIA platform allows operators to quickly create the right formats for shipping to large-scale retailers and automate the process to create, code, verify and change messages for pallets – all from a central control system that can integrate with backend systems and work across multiple print heads and production lines.
Our sister group Matthews Automation provides warehouse automation and software that improve material handling processes in distribution centers. Many brands are exploring automation to quickly scale operations to meet ecommerce growth, and to manage the complexity of omnichannel order fulfillment. Matthews is often combining established solutions like warehouse execution software and pick-to-light with emerging technologies like autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) and robotics to create flexible applications that can adapt to rapid order volume increases, labor shortages and warehouse space restrictions due to premium prices. Matthews integrates AMRs and robotic systems from leading manufacturers and offers special application-specific tops to optimize bots for tasks like order picking or material transport throughout facilities.
While automation is the name of the game these days, it can feel like a daunting task when faced with myriad options for all aspects of your production line. Key things to remember are that it doesn’t have to happen all at once, and most automation solutions are designed to be integrated with backend systems and compatible technologies.
As was apparent at Pack Expo, there are many ways to approach the puzzle of adding robots and automated solutions into your manufacturing process. The best thing to do is start small and build up, finding the best fit for each of your needs. Wondering where to start? Give us a call at 800.775.7775 or email us at [email protected].