Old Robots Learn New Tricks

May 1, 2010
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System integrators and packaging machine builders are engineering robotic systems that address the specific needs of food and beverage companies.


High-speed SCARA arms have picked and placed food products for almost 30 years, demonstrating versatility that is matched by their durability. Source: Bosch Rexroth Corp.


Gantry systems bring robotics to space-constrained spaces where articulated arm robots simply cannot function. Source: Gudel AG.

For years, manufacturing robotics was synonymous with the auto industry, and robot suppliers helped design and build cells for precision assembly and heavy-duty material systems to meet the particular needs of carmakers. There’s a new buyer on the block now, and old robots are learning new tricks.

A year ago, the continued existence of Detroit was in question. American manufacturing in general was reeling. One robotics bright spot was food and beverage, mostly in the secondary packaging and material handling areas but also upstream, where SCARA robots debuted 30 years ago to perform tasks like picking and placing cookies from a moving belt into a nesting tray.

Robotic-arm makers long have turned to system integrators to develop nonautomotive applications, providing support as needed and relying on the integrators to devise systems that meet the needs of food and beverage manufacturers. Integrators had to sink or swim, and in the early 2000s, a few went down for the third time. Today, the technology is better understood, controls are more easily integrated and costs have plummeted, resulting in smoother deployments and new capabilities.

The most dramatic example is mixed load palletizing, a challenge that has bedeviled robotics developers for years and which Kuka Systems’ Christian Wurll calls “the Holy Grail in the logistics industry.”

Kuka is completing a material-handling project involving mixed pallets for a beverage company. Wurll, technical director of the Sterling Heights, MI, firm, declines to name the client but says the project should come online this month.

Other integrators are also working on the mixed-pallet riddle. Generating sufficient throughput to get a payback on robotics for mixed loads and rainbow pallets was the first challenge that had to be met, suggests Richard Tallian, western regional sales manager with ABB Inc.’s robotics division, and integrators now are overcoming the issue of assembling “a big geometric puzzle” at high speeds. Engineers at Bastian Material Handling have completed a mixed-pallet pilot for a grocery distributor and hope to conclude factory acceptance later this year, according to Mark Colzani, corporate operations manager.

Kuka’s palletizer is tied to a high-density automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS) built with Westfalia Technologies Inc., York, PA. A rack entry vehicle retrieves pallet loads and brings them directly to the palletizing area with fewer conveyors than in a traditional AS/RS. Powered by sophisticated software logic, a high-speed picking robot assembles mixed layers of beverage SKUs.  

A sister company of Kuka Robotics, Kuka Systems may tackle more North American projects involving other suppliers’ robots than its own. Automotive applications are Kuka’s primary focus, but three years ago the integrator began emphasizing other industries, including logistics; it partnered with Swisslog on AS/RS installations at Target Stores DCs.

While robotics has an established track record in food and beverage, the scope of today’s projects is much larger than the early implementations.

“Certain projects have some risk, particularly because they are on the technological edge,” suggests Wurll. Major beverage and brewing companies gravitate to large integrators to mitigate that risk, and they are benefiting from work that has occurred in other industries. The groundwork has more to do with execution than systems development: “Simple things like how we mount sensors, run the wiring and provide access to the cell,” Wurll explains. “The positive feedback we received was astonishing.”

A 2-D camera scans the pick area and coordinates the motions of two M-10iA robots case-packing tubs of cream cheese. After transferring its payload to the robot on the right, the robot on the left uses vision to verify the bar codes on the picked tubs. Source: Fanuc Robotics.

Resource allocation

A growing chorus of retailers is clamoring for mixed loads from food and beverage manufacturers. Early automated solutions failed to deliver as advertised, leaving some manufacturers twice shy. Integrators believe they have solved this Rubik’s cube of product movement through a mix of more flexible components and more powerful programming.

“The different package sizes that your end-of-arm tool has to handle is a significant challenge,” points out BMH’s Colzani, “and your vision system has to be very robust and include multiple cameras.” BMH’s St. Louis-based food and beverage robotics team drew on experts in vision, mechanical engineering, controls engineering and robotics “to crack the nut,” he reports.

“There’s a huge, intense software program that has to be written,” adds ABB’s Tallian. Vision isn’t necessarily part of the solution, he believes. “System integrators have a toolbox of proven technologies they can apply to a given project,” and the ultimate solution is as much a reflection of their technical creativity as it is the sum of automation components.

Tallian makes a distinction between integrators and machine builders who have integrated robotics into their solutions. He includes Rock Hill, SC-based Bradman Lake Inc. in the latter group. Bradman Lake fabricates packaging machines that address two of Tallian’s three Ps of robotic packaging: picking and packing (palletizing being the third). Bradman’s end-of-arm tooling may vary, but the machines themselves are standard.

Bradman Lake standardizes on Rockwell controls and ABB robotics. “We’re not agnostic in our hardware selection,” says Nick Bishop, vice president-sales & marketing. Some food companies are wedded to a particular supplier’s hardware, and Bradman Lake can accommodate them at an added cost. But those cases disrupt the business model. “Economic forces drive manufacturers like us to standardize,” Bishop says. “Robots are commodities, and what they are buying from us is a machine that incorporates a robot.”

Delta-style arms for high-speed transport of light objects over short distances are used for some case packers, while heavier objects traveling longer distances and requiring multi-axis arms to reorient the load up to 180° demand a different robot. Regardless of the requirements, Bradman Lake is able to meet them with one of three robots, allowing the firm to drive out engineering cost and deliver a lower-priced machine.

A similar path is followed by many of the machine builders who integrate components from Fanuc Robotics America Inc., Rochester Hills, MI. Instead of partnering with integrators who develop customized solutions, Fanuc has nurtured relations with suppliers of packaging machinery, providing training and engineering assistance while those suppliers take the lead in application development.

“Over time, after we pour the foundation, their process expertise takes over,” says Dick Motley, account manager-national distribution partners. “A creative mind in the packaging area recognizes the flexibility inherent in a multi-axis robot and knows how to exploit it.”

Premier Tech Systems typifies the migration. The Riviere-du-Loup, Quebec, firm began with pushers and extender mechanisms in conventional equipment for bulk bagging and palletizing. As robotic speeds increased, costs came down and ease-of-use increased, the company began incorporating robots, explains Rene Cossette, general manager-palletizing and robotic systems. Robots are particularly apt components in food, where rapidly changing product sizes require flexibility and hygienic considerations favor robots over mechanical systems.

“End users are opening their minds to the next automation technology step,” says Cossette, “and more people are available to support the systems.”

Ashland, VA-based Flexicell Inc. focuses strictly on robotics integration, making it central to the packing and palletizing equipment it builds. Like Premier Tech, the firm standardizes on Fanuc arms, though it also partners with Kuka, according to Stuart Cooper, vice president-sales. Flexibility, efficiency and lower costs are driving growth in food and beverage, Cooper agrees, but “software development has been the most significant development.” The ability to simulate system performance and tweak or completely overhaul the design before building a machine is a huge advantage compared to mechanical system design. And simplified interface with vision systems is enabling robots to do double duty in inspection and quality assurance.

End of arm tools grab bagged product for top-loading in a shipping case. To lower engineering costs and reduce machine prices, some robotic integrators are standardizing their equipment and limiting the applications they address. Source: Bradman Lake Group.

ROI recalculated

Labor cost reduction is the traditional payback calculus for automation, a criterion that drove Bradman Lake’s development of its monobloc case packer. It combines case erection, product collating, robotic pick and place, and case sealing and transport to palletizing. As many as eight workers would be required to execute those steps manually, Bishop estimates, presenting a compelling opportunity for hard-dollar savings.

Robotics also deliver soft savings, such as quicker changeovers. Given the changing realities of food production, those efficiencies are critical: four or five new products are needed to generate the volumes a single product could produce 20 years ago, Bishop says. If robotics weren’t part of the system, a case packer might require an hour of downtime for changeover, undermining the cost benefit of replacing labor. 

Today’s focus on asset utilization also plays to robots’ advantages, points out Fanuc’s Motley. “We see increased attention to overall OEE,” he says. “Overhead is constant, and efficiency is more important than speed.” Downtime caused by a machine jam is never recovered, and food manufacturers are more inclined to factor that loss into payback estimates. Those calculations often cast robotics in a better light.

Judging by the introduction of robots that are washdown-ready and able to function in extreme cold, upstream applications for robotics are ready to expand. Meat and poultry processes offer intriguing possibilities, ABB’s Tallian believes, because of the number of workers currently required and the environmental dangers to those workers.

“A lot of hand-tool solutions are used,” Tallian observes, and robotics could leapfrog mechanized alternatives and put those companies in the automation vanguard. ABB is involved in three-way discussions with food companies and system integrators to ensure that details of end-of-arm tooling, vision and other essential components are addressed in the early stages.

For now, food and beverage robotics applications are in secondary packaging and material handling, and some believe in-process opportunities may be limited.

“Robots only serve a function at the end of the line,” Kuka’s Wurll believes. “It’s hard to add robotics where you have highly sophisticated machinery that is perfectly fine.”

Mixed pallets are another matter, and the demand for automated solutions likely will increase. Manually opening completed pallets, assembling the order-specific variety and re-palletizing the shipment until now has been the only way to date to meet this customer requirement. It’s a scenario custom made for new technology, and robotics integrators are racing to be the first with a robust, high-speed, flexible solution.

For more information:
Richard Tallian, ABB Inc., 720-889-4003, richard.tallian@us.abb.com
Mark Colzani, Bastian Material Handling, 317-575-9992 mcolzani@bastiansolutions.com
Nick Bishop, Bradman Lake Inc., 704-588-3301
Dick Motley, Fanuc Robotics America, 248-377-7522, dick.motley@fanucrobotics.com
Stuart Cooper, Flexicell Inc., 804-338-1160
Christian Wurll, Kuka Systems, 586-883-5132, christian.wurll@kukanao.com
Rene Cossette, Premier Tech Systems, 418-867-8883, cosr@premiertech.com
Marvin Winrich, Rockwell Automation, 414-359-9700, mjwinrich@ra.rockwell.com

Coming soon: safer, more efficient robotics

Comprehensive guidance for the safe integration and installation of robotic cells from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is still a year away, a situation that creates hesitancy among some system engineers to complete robotic designs that might require post-installation retrofits to meet the new safety standards. Nonetheless, ISO 10218-2 will open the door to technical advances that make robots not only safer, but also more efficient.

ISO 10218-1 specifies safety requirements for the robot itself, but an arm is only one component in an integrated manufacturing system. ISO 10218-2 will address technological advances in controls, artificial intelligence, intrusion sensing and other areas that have occurred in the last decade, allowing integrators to design cells that not only are safer but also have a smaller footprint, according to Marvin Winrich, coauthor of the white paper, “International Safety Standards Keep Pace with Advances in Robotic Technology and Applications.”

Light curtains, pressure-sensing safety devices and other external sensors may become unnecessary safeguards for personnel who breach fencing surrounding robot work areas.

“The old sensors are no longer going to be required when the new generation with safe-software stop limits are installed,” notes Winrich, a New York-based machine safety consultant with Rockwell Automation. Signal processing time is minimized, which means arms will travel shorter distances before coming to a stop. Consequently, the safety envelope around the arm can be compressed.

The anticipated ISO standard also will facilitate use of new robotic technologies, such as cableless teach pendants and multi-robot synchronization. “With the growing capabilities and complexities of robotics,” Winrich writes, “integrating the safety data from the work cell is more important than ever.”

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