Fifteen years ago people might not have thought they needed a home computer, but now people would wonder why someone would be without one. Huge advancements in performance and ease-of-use coupled with lower costs made home computers popular. The same principles apply to robotic equipment in beverage facilities. Robotic performance, flexibility, speed, ease-of-use, low maintenance and costs that continue to decline make robotic systems viable options to aid beverage companies with their production and warehouse demands.
“One of the benefits, generally speaking, is an increase in the level of technology inside of these organizations that will benefit the company down the road,” says Earl Wohlrab, manager of robotic integration at Intelligrated Inc., Mason, Ohio. “Robots lend themselves to a greater education of the workforce. … As more robots come online and more people become familiar and comfortable with robotics, I see their jobs morphing into something different than it is now.” Robotics also offer both gentle and flexible handling in beverage manufacturing facilities.
“These benefits help our clients address two of their major challenges: lightweighting of packaging materials and the proliferation of SKUs,” says Scott Smith, global director of market development and emerging businesses at Hartness International, Greenville, S.C. “The ability to handle a number of disparate SKUs with limited to zero changeover is driving both beverage producers and distributors toward robotic solutions. Sustainability initiatives and cost savings strategies continue to drive material out of packaging. Robotics offer the ability to effectively handle lightweighted containers without damage.”
Traditional mechanical equipment in the beverage industry can be fairly complicated in terms of design, function and maintenance, and robots help to ease that burden. With the growing number of SKUs, reducing the time needed for changeovers is a big advantage to beverage manufacturers as well.
“The robot system is very effective for changeovers because the robot system itself doesn’t change, but maybe just the very end of line tool or gripper,” says Dick Motley, senior account manager for Rochester Hills, Mich.-based Fanuc Robotics’ national distribution sales group. “That might be the only thing that changes in the overall robotic system if it changes at all, and a lot of times that system can be implemented automatically.”
Over the past decade, beverage distribution also has undergone changes that are making product distribution in the industry progressively more difficult and expensive. Although rising labor rates, labor availability and budding ergonomic issues do factor into the equation, the need for robots isn’t completely being driven by outside influences, but also by SKU proliferation, says Bill Torrens, vice president of sales and marketing at RMT Robotics, Grimsby, Ontario.
Distributors are considering automated and robotic systems such as robotic gantry-based layer picking systems, automated case pick solutions and random case palletizing robots to manage the growing number of SKUs and reduce picking errors, he says.
While interest in robotics is growing in distribution facilities, many operations are still rudimentary, employing manual processes, traditional handling equipment and simple warehouse management solutions.
“The move to full robotic automation is daunting, operationally and financially, as the prospect of moving from the Stone Age to the rocket age is realized,” Torrens says. “That said there is a growing commitment within organizations to embrace the change as maintaining the status quo is no longer an option.”
Robotic palletizing is certainly the most well-known robotic application in the beverage industry. Currently the use of robotics in beverage manufacturing facilities can be placed in two general categories: general material handling and palletizing and depalletizing, Intelligrated’s Wohlrab says.
Intelligrated offers palletizing applications for products including bag-in-box to loose tray to shrink wrap packages. The company also supplies robotic depalletizers, including bulk depalletizers as well as more traditional depalletizing solutions.
Intelligrated offers its Alvey 950 Series Palletizer, a combination of a conventional in-line palletizer and a robotic arm for pattern forming. The Alvey 950 uses one or more robotic arms for pattern forming, making it suitable for handling small finished case sizes, multiple product formats and complex patterns. Designed with high-speed and flexibility in mind, programming from the Human Machine Interface allows for fast and easy product reconfiguration and quick line changeover for packaging rates in excess of 100 cases per minute, the company says. Flexibility can be enhanced with the choice of robotic arm manufacturer and operating software.
The gentler manipulation of product provided by the Alvey 950 accommodates the reduction in secondary packaging without compromising the integrity of the finished product, as well as providing flexibility to respond to other packaging changes with minimal changeover times.
For distribution facilities, Intelligrated also provides order fulfillment on a case by case level and mixed load palletizing solutions.
Hartness offers a number of robotic solutions, including both high and low level palletizing solutions. One application that the company sees gaining traction is automated material loading (AML). AML is the process whereby raw materials are loaded robotically into packaging machines.
“A good example would be the loading of corrugated trays or flat blanks into case erecting or tray shrink machines,” Hartness’ Smith says. “This solution may reduce labor or greatly reduce the opportunity for repetitive motion injuries.”
Fanuc offers three primary applications, two that are closely related to palletizing and AML. For palletizing, Fanuc offers a small robot that performs laning. Products will flow into the robot and the robot will rotate products to create a palletizing pattern for a layer of beverages. After the smaller robot interfaces with individual packages, a much larger robot handles the complete layer transport to build a pallet.
Robotics in distribution
In the warehouse, robotics aid distributors with growing number of SKUs by offering 100 percent order accuracy, reduced labor costs and a reduction in the footprint needed to handle the volume, says Derek Rickard, RMT’s distribution systems manager. RMT offers three fully integrated solutions, all based upon the gantry robotic concepts: layer, case and hybrid picking.
For layer picking, in conjunction with an overflow storage system, products are brought forward and placed into the work envelope of a gantry robot, RMT’s Torrens says. The gantries work in a coordinated effort based upon the order to build rainbow pallets, one layer at a time.
For case picking, donor pallets are brought forward in an automated replenishment routine and case inventory is staged under a gantry for picking. In trailer load or pallet build sequence, the picking and release of cases from multiple gantries is orchestrated by order and placed onto the conveyor, which transports the cases to the dock face in sequence, Torrens says. At the end of the solution, robot arms that perform random case palletizing can be employed as needed and cases are delivered by the gantries in sequence.
Many operations have an order demographic that promotes partial layer pick and case pick necessitating a hybrid pick, Torrens explains. In these configurations, orders are first picked by the layer picking gantries and then augmented by the case picking gantries which stream cases to the completed layer pallets for “topping up,” he says.
“In these operations, not only are there labor savings, but generally twice as many SKUs can be handled in half the space at twice the rate of conventional operations,” Torrens says. “In addition, 100 percent of the inventory is electronically tracked and pick accuracy is 100 percent. Labor is saved, the operation is consolidated and SKUs can continue to mushroom with no additional stress on the distribution operation.”
In distribution centers in addition to offering mixed load palletizing, Fanuc offers software technology that will mimic the human decision-making process to decide where to place boxes so they fit, are well supported during transport and are ordered in a logical sequence for efficient delivery, Motley says.
“All of those factors that go into creating an efficient custom load are very, very challenging to do with a machine, and we’re pioneers,” Motley says.
Fanuc also offers a patent-pending system that can grab packages of a variety of sizes, shapes and textures that mimics the infinite number of packages able to be picked by human hands.
On the whole, robots currently represent a small portion of the technology inside beverage facilities. But as SKU proliferation and packaging material reduction continue, so will the use of robotic solutions to meet these challenges, Hartness’ Smith says. BI