Advancements in Robotics

Mike Rebollo
Southwest Regional Sales Manager
BluePrint Automation (BPA)

What are some advances in robotic pick-and-place technology over the past 3-5 years that have changed the way we think about packaging?

The continued advancements in electronics, computer processing, and lightweight materials allows the robots to operate in a smaller footprint and at higher speeds with greater efficiency and reliability.  Also, advancements in vision technology and end of arm tooling are allowing robots to handle a lot more products than ever.

How can robotic pick-and-place systems increase the throughput on a packaging line for miniature products?

Often miniature products are packaged manually.  It is not uncommon for us to see companies reduce their throughput because the manual packers at the end of the line cannot keep up with maximum throughput of their processing, and, companies cannot find enough people to do the work required.  Essentially companies reduce their pieces per hour, or, pounds per hour, to match the number of workers they have for that day and the speed of the manual packing.

The human arm can only operate at a specific rate, for a specific length of time.  Then the employee needs to take a break or be replaced with a fresh employee.  A robotic arm can operate much faster than a human arm, and, does not need to take a break.  These two factors allow companies to match their processing capabilities with their handling capabilities for their miniature products. Furthermore, it allows companies to operate efficiently on their second and third shifts.  Often companies have difficulties finding enough people to match their processing capabilities during those shifts.

What advantages do pick-and-place systems have over manual packaging systems?

The robot always shows up, does not complain, and can pick and place much faster than a person.  When handling miniatures, over a short distance, robotic arms can make 100+ picks per minute.  Of course, all rates are subject to product weights, rotations required, and, distance traveled.  Also, the accuracy of a robotic system can be very precise.  It is not unusual to see robotic system maintaining a few millimeters tolerance over many years.  This becomes more important when handling small products.

What are some common questions food manufacturers have about robotic packaging systems?

Can it handle my product without damaging it, at the rate I need it to be handled?
This question gets to the heart of the project.  The only way to properly answer this question is to see the product and understand the throughput requirements.  Recent advancements in end of arm tooling are enabling food handling robots to pick and place more products than ever.  Chance are, we can gently handle the product.

Will it fit in my space?
Of course, this is a major consideration.  Ultimately the answer comes down to throughput and the number of robotic arms required to get the job done.  Unfortunately, many plants were not built with robotic automation in mind.  The good news is that there are many different sizes and types of robots to choose from.  Often, but not always, we can fit the robotic solution in the same space that is currently allotted to do the work manually.

What is the cost and return on investment?
The answer to this question is always based on the answers to the first two questions, and the current cost of performing the job manually plus the ability of the company to increase throughput.  Often, we discover that companies find an very good ROI, especially at this point in history, were we have a rapid increase in minimum wages coupled with the scarcity of people willing to perform the task required.

How are production speeds affected?

With automation, speeds are designed to match processing speeds and often designed with “surge” capabilities to handle company’s WIP or “rework” needs.  If throughput is limited by manual operation, then throughput will increase with automation. 

A company approached us with the need to place cookie tops on the bottoms at a rate of 1200 pieces per minute.  On average, they could only find enough people to handle under 1000 pieces per minute.  With vision guided robotics we were able to increase their throughput by over 20% plus eliminate the on-going challenge of finding workers.  Additionally, this company needed to have the appearance of a handmade cookie, we were able to accomplish this by skewing the placement of the tops by 3mm.

What aspects of robotic technology ensure quality alignment, and packaging?

With automation we have many tools at our disposal to ensure quality alignment and packaging.  Most frequently, with robotics, we use vision and thermal imaging to assure proper alignment.  Essentially, the vision or thermal imaging system will see the location and skew of the product and communicate that information to the robotic arm.  The robotic arm will then pick the product and rotate to it to allow the product to be placed in its package with proper orientation.  If required, additional sensors can be incorporated to verify proper placement.  This system works extremely well with miniatures.

What is the latest robotic pick and place solution at BPA?

The Spider 300v is a two-robot case loading system with vision allowing processors and co-packers to pack both vertical and horizontal on the same line. Built for quick changeover between recipes, the Spider 300v is capable of handling standard RSC cases, three-sided displays and a wide range of other containers.

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