Lifting Their Spirits
Heavy lifting may be fun when it’s done for exercise, but doing it repeatedly, shift after shift, on high-speed packaging lines of a major manufacturing operation is not really anybody’s idea of a good time.
And for a little while about 18 months ago, a three-person crew manning end-of-line-packaging operations at the Recochem Consumer Packaging Division (Canada) plant in Edmonton, Alta., had little reason to enjoy themselves, as they struggled to keep up with packaging and palletizing large, 9.46-liter containers of windshield washer fluid that were suddenly flying off the store-shelves wherever they were sold.
“Sales levels of washer fluid and paint thinners in the large 9.46-liter bottle have amazed us in terms of market demand,” recalls plant manager Lawrence Winter.
“Sales climbed by 30 per cent in 2009, and they are now up more than 50 per cent since 2007. Accounting for all the various products that we offer in that large container, we’re now processing more than 100,000 cases per year of those large and heavy bottles at our plant.”
However, this stellar market success came at a price of very sore and tired packaging crew at the plant—now manhandling fairly heavy, two-bottle cases weighing nearly 20 kilograms each—with the risk of serious back injuries becoming a frightening, and a very costly, possibility.
“About 18 months ago we realized we were pushing our people on the packaging line too hard, loading the bottles two at a time into cases and then palletizing 39 heavy cases per pallet in three layers of 13 cases each,” Winter relates.
“The physically demanding work not only tired our workers, but the neatness of the pallets also began to suffer, and any overhang of the cases can be a sufficient cause a customer to refuse delivery.
“ We needed more precision, and we also wanted to protect our workers from repetitive strain injuries,” says Winter.
“That’s why in mid-2008 we began to investigate automated solutions for case-packing and palletizing.”
After trying several semi-automated systems, with mixed results, Rechochem’s western operations manager Richard Wu ultimately settled on a fully-automated solution in the form of a model EPL80 palletizing robot from the West Carrolton, Ohio-based Motoman, Inc., a renowned robotics manufacturer now operating as Motoman Robotics Division of the Waukegan, Ill.-headquartered industrial group Yaskawa America, Inc.
Boasting 80-inch (2,032-mm) reach and 176-pound (79.8-kg) payload capacity, the compact five-axis EPL80 robot model was designed with a wide, 360-degree work envelope and a minimal footprint that did not require any more floorspace than the 10×25-foot workspace occupied by the manual packing lines it replaced, according to Winter, while its customized end-of-arm tooling enables the robot the both pack the cases and palletize them at high speeds without skipping a beat.
Installed in June of 2009 at a total project cost well within the budgeted $182,000—including installation of a custom-engineered conveyor line—has been getting rave review right from its arrival, notes Winter.
“Compared to conventional case-packing and palletizing lines, the robotic line requires minimal maintenance and occupies relatively little floorspace,” he states, explaining that the new conveyor was designed specifically to allow filled cases to flow back into the workcell from an elevated space a foot or so above from where they exit the filling room.