Small But Smart: Packaging Automation For Smaller Facilities
Sunday, October 3rd, 2021
The benefits of automation in the packaging industry are well established. Those who adopt automation can reduce labour costs, improve worker safety and increase productivity. However, some smaller operators are put off by the cost or the perceived difficulties of implementing automation in a smaller facility. Here, John Young, APAC country director at automation parts supplier, EU Automation, explains why being small doesn’t stop you from being smart.
The Asia Pacific food packaging market was valued at $125 billion in 2018. According to research by Global Market Insights, it is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of over 4.5 percent to reach a staggering $170.4 billion by 2025. The rise of e-commerce will be a key driver of this growth.
For companies to remain competitive and enjoy their share of this market growth, upgrading to smarter facilities will be key. The label ‘smart’ began as an acronym for self-monitoring, analysis and reporting technology. Today, when technologists speak of smart technology, they usually mean technology that can talk back to us. Smart machines are still in their relative infancy, but machines need to be future-ready so they can scale up when necessary.
Automation is a key part of smart technology and packaging automation has progressed substantially in recent years. What might once have been the preserve of larger facilities, who could afford higher capital costs, is now an opportunity that everyone in the industry can begin to explore.
Cobots & Soft Robotics
In the field of robotics, two key developments are allowing increasing benefits for smaller and medium-sized facilities in the packaging industry. One is soft robotics. Traditionally, packaging as a sector was seen as a bit of a laggard in its uptake of robotics. Perhaps because many larger robots lacked the precision and dexterity needed for some of the more delicate packaging jobs.
Soft robotics is a sub-field of robotics that deals with the construction of robots from highly compliant materials, allowing for increasing flexibility and adaptability, as well as the ability to operate safely around humans. This makes them ideally suited for packaging jobs that require a softer touch than your traditional industrial robot.
In packaging, soft robots utilise silicone covered tentacle grippers to grasp objects, guided by cameras and sensors that allow for precise and delicate movements. They are being used in picking in the food industry, as they can grasp objects and produce without bruising or damaging it.
The second key development is the rise of collaborative robots, better known as cobots. We have seen an accelerated uptake of cobots across multiple sectors, particularly in the last two years. Cobots are robots that are specifically designed to operate alongside human workers, in contrast to industrial robots that are often housed behind safety cages.
As well as becoming more affordable, cobots are designed for ease of use, removing the need for a highly trained engineer to facilitate their operation. They are usually programmed through a hand-guided demonstration from a worker who requires only rudimentary training.
Their smaller footprint also makes them an attractive option in facilities where floorspace is restricted. Your average cobot will range in size from 5 kilogrammes to 50 kilogrammes, so they can be moved around the factory safely and easily. A cobot arm utilising soft robotics might be a handy investment for smaller facilities looking to exploit greater automation, but worried about limited space or high capital costs.
Investing in automation need not mean an entire system overhaul. Instead, smaller factories can add to their automation capabilities incrementally. A great way of doing this is by adding smart sensors to pre-existing machinery.
For example, suppose your existing machine cannot reliably detect when a box flap is up or down. Failure to detect this could cause a halt to the production line. Adding photoelectric sensors with background suppression help solve this problem. The sensors would scan the angles of the packaging to determine if the flap angle will cause a problem with case-sealing operations. Were the sensor to detect a problem, it would automatically send a message to halt the line, allowing an operator to correct the situation.
Sensors are highly efficient for inspection tasks such as the one highlighted above, as they detect faults more reliably and consistently. Unlike humans, machines don’t get tired or bored. However, there used to be a trade-off.
Automating inspection tasks that have previously relied on experienced inspectors was more complicated than, for example, detecting whether a package was opened or closed. Similarly, taking high resolution photos for visual inspection often meant compromising on speed.
Thanks to technological improvements, problems such as these are being solved. Companies like Omron are using powerful artificial intelligence (AI) to match the skill of an experienced human operator. The latest cameras, meanwhile, can capture reliable images at speed, meaning the job of multiple cameras is replaced by one.
With the help of a reliable automation parts supplier like EU Automation, if smaller facilities want to invest in automation, they can make incremental upgrades and experiment to discover what works best for them. Ensuring your factory is ready for the future does not automatically require high capital costs, generous floor space or complete system overhauls. It turns out that being small doesn’t mean you can’t also be smart.
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