Robotics in the Packaging Industry
By PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies
Industrial robots have come a long way since their initial introduction in the automotive industry. In the last few years, robots have become smaller, more affordable, and more widely available. Their capabilities have steadily expanded through improvements to machine vision, end-of-arm tooling (EoAT) technology, A.I./machine learning, durability, and safety. Robots also have become simpler to program and operate, reducing the level of technical skill needed for successful deployment. As capabilities progress, robots are steadily expanding into new applications and even entirely new industries. Robots are becoming an important part of the solution consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies are implementing to tackle some of their greatest operational challenges.
According to Robots and Cobots, An Automated Future, a report produced by PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies, most participating CPG companies (84 per cent) stated they are using robotics along their production line today. But even more (93 per cent) predict utilizing robotics on the production floor in the next five years. While robots increase in importance on primary packaging lines, the technology has become essential in secondary and transport packaging, with nearly 100 per cent of survey respondents planning to increase robotic usage in this area during the next five years. The advancements in A.I. and EoAT were cited as primary reasons for moving robotics usage ahead in the future.
Robotics solutions are more affordable than ever, especially as the newest generation of highly flexible yet cost-effective cobots proliferate in the market. The availability of lower-cost solutions, coupled with expanding budgets for robots, has resulted in more robots in more industries performing a wider range of tasks.
One of the most significant challenges faced by manufacturers today is the skilled labour shortage. Over 70 per cent of CPG firms think that robots could have a moderate or significant impact on addressing labour shortages in their plant, according to PMMI’s Challenges and Opportunities for Packaging and Processing Operations white paper.
That said, robots are now being integrated into all aspects of packaging operations. In just the last few years, robotic capabilities in primary packaging have expanded significantly. With the advent of tactile sensors, A.I.-supported vision, and innovative EoAT designs, robots and cobots are finding new roles in primary packaging and expanding their reach into new manufacturing markets, according to the Robots and Cobots report. An ongoing challenge for manufacturers will be understanding the depth and breadth of these new capabilities and how to apply them most effectively.
Sensor technology has been a key improvement, enabling the growth of robotics into new applications. Tactile sensors that help control force and pressure have given robots the ability to “feel” objects, allowing them to pick delicate and odd-shaped items without damage. Vision sensors, coupled with A.I., allow robots to properly orient and place picked items for primary packaging. These two important improvements have spurred new growth in robots in industries that require precise, delicate handling, such as the food and electronics industries, according to the Robots and Cobots report.
Secondary packaging can be one of the most important aspects of production – particularly in the age of e-commerce, where secondary packaging is often the first thing consumers see. To improve efficiency, many manufacturers are turning to robotic solutions in secondary packaging operations, from selecting the appropriate package size to visually inspecting the quality of the completed package. When there is a problem in secondary packaging, robots can often address it.
Advances in vision and machine learning have made robots even more valuable at the end of the line, increasing the efficiency of pallet stacking using technology that does not require extensive reprogramming to change product type or configuration. Cobots also have seen deployment in transport packaging, especially as payload capacities have increased.
Another area of opportunity for robot-based solutions is in labeling operations where labeling is critical, such as pharmaceutical production. Robot-based visual inspection of incoming bottles is analyzed, an appropriate label is printed, and that label is then applied by a robot to the bottle. The label is then inspected again to verify it matches the bottle when exiting the process. By using this completely automated and robotic system, pharmaceutical manufacturers can accurately label and efficiently verify that accuracy.
Robotic solutions for a variety of packaging applications will be on display at PACK EXPO Las Vegas (Sept. 11-13, 2023; Las Vegas Convention Center). This event will be the most comprehensive packaging and processing show in North America in 2023. On track to be the largest and broadest edition of this trade show since its inception, PACK EXPO Las Vegas will showcase solutions from over 2,000 suppliers. From engaging with colleagues and hearing from industry experts to witnessing materials, technologies, and machinery in action, attending PACK EXPO Las Vegas is the most effective way to explore packaging and processing solutions for every kind of product, entire production lines, and even the supply chain. To register and learn more, visit packexpolasvegas.com.