The Internet of Things (IoT) and the ability to connect and collect data through robotics is impacting virtually every operation in the beverage industry. As busy beverage warehouses handle burgeoning SKUs and manpower shortages continue, repetitive robotics-related functions are filling the gaps.

In fact, collaborative robots, or “cobots” now are the fastest growing segment of industrial automation, expected to jump ten-fold to 34 percent of all industrial robot sales by 2025, says Stuart Shepherd, regional sales director of Universal Robots USA, Ann Arbor, Mich., citing the International Federation of Robotics.

“Unlike conventional industrial robotic solutions that usually stay bolted down in cages dedicated to one task only, the cobots are designed to work hand-in-hand with operators on a wide range of tasks, opening up more opportunities for human-robot collaboration,” Shepherd says.

Bob Doyle, vice president at Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Robotics Industries Association (RIA), notes the progress of robotics in mobility, material handling and ability to precisely pick and place items.

“This is the first steps toward the use of [artificial intelligence] (AI),” Doyle says, adding that IoT is crucial because “every business is a data business.”

“To the extent that businesses can connect and collect data through robotics, they will be in a position to make smarter business decisions, predict machine health and generally improve operations,” he explains. “… Rather than have human workers move items from one side of the warehouse to the other, robots can take over. The human workers can then focus on more sophisticated work.”

Mike Wagner, global original equipment manufacturer (OEM) packaging lead at Milwaukee-based Rockwell Automation, agrees. “We are beginning to see real-world solutions making their way into new machine designs, from analytics to online work instructions and help,” he says.

While suppliers focus on on-premise solutions coming from OEMs, secure network infrastructures at end-user sites continue to present challenges to a fully connected solution, Wagner says.

Experts note that better software and hardware platforms and even apps specifically designed for robotic and warehouse communication is combating this issue and leveraging warehouse productivity.

For instance, Universal Robots developed UR+, an innovative global ecosystem akin to an “app store” for the company’s robots that enables third-party developers to create plug-in-place products for UR cobots such as grippers, vision systems and other peripherals such as monitoring software and hardware that will automatically send alerts to a phone or laptop when the cobot is not working, Shepherd says. Daily reports on productivity also can be sent, he notes.

“We’re definitely seeing a push toward our cobots being more connected, facilitated through IoT technologies,” he says. “This unique concept allows us to focus on delivering the best cobot on the market while working closely with our ecosystem to ensure that our distributors and end-users can deploy quickly by choosing UR+ products optimized to work seamlessly with our cobots.”

There are 104 certified UR+ products with 359 approved commercial developers, he adds.


Advancing capabilities

Today’s robots come in many shapes and sizes like the articulated arms found in Delta’s Spider Robots and mobile robots like smart automated guided vehicles (AGVs). Increasingly, robotics are a go-to technology in packaging and palletizing operations by increasing flexibility, convenience and ease of use.

“Robotic integrators are finding that if motion is required, it is easier, faster and typically more cost-effective to use a robot,” says Wesley Garrett, authorized system integrator account manager at FANUC America, Rochester Hills, Mich.

The company offers three families of Delta robots to accommodate various envelope and payload requirements. Additionally, FANUC offers a full line of serial link robots from 4-killogram (kg) to 2300-kg payload. “Within this group are four- and five-axis robots that are well-suited for high-speed packing and palletizing, as well as six-axis models for all other applications requiring six degrees of freedom,” Garrett says.

“There are many warehouses that utilize robotics, but not to a large scale yet,” he adds. “Newer intelligent technology is rapidly hitting the market to help benefit warehouse operations. This includes mobile robotics, advanced 3-D vision, and each picking end-of-arm tooling. This technology opens the door to many new applications that were too challenging in the past, for example, bin picking, depalletizing and mixed case palletizing.”

Matt Wicks, vice president of product development at Honeywell Intelligrated, Mason, Ohio, points to the evolution of robotic software. “This last year has seen continual improvements to robotic software and machine vision,” he explains. “Robotic technology shows continued promise for the beverage industry, especially as technology becomes more advanced and capable of handling various product sizes and packaging types.

“Robotics technology provides sustained, round-the-clock productivity and higher throughput, typically in a compact footprint,” he continues. “Perhaps most importantly, robotics can help relieve pressure that operations face due to labor availability.”

In July, unemployment was hovering at less than 4 percent; however, the turnover rate for warehouse workers is 36 percent, according to Lou Micheletto, manager of integrated solutions at Yale Materials Handling Corp., Greenville N.C.

“Some experts peg the cost of finding and training a replacement at twice an employee’s salary,” he says.

To streamline operations, Yale offers robotic lift trucks that through small sensors, transmit real-time equipment and component status to lift truck manager software.

“It monitors and commands robotic lift trucks in real time, controlling traffic and assigning transport order to individual units. It stays appraised of their status while they execute work orders,” Micheletto says. “If a robotic life truck unit ‘sees’ a pallet load in need of pickup or an open storage location, it can relay this information to the robotic lift truck manager software.”

Robotics also aid in order fulfillment because of their ability to recognize and pick a wide range of items that are different sizes, weights and materials that also might be jumbled together in bins, Universal Robots’ Shepherd says.

“Cobots offer flexible implementation and easy programming for changeable operations,” Shepherd says. “Systems based on Universal Robots+ open platform can be incorporated into many manual logistics applications, such as merchandise sorting and outbound bagging, labeling and shipping.

“New cobot-based sorters with intelligent grippers and sophisticated vision systems and software can sort tens of thousands of items per hour,” he continues. “And automating the bagging and shipping process can increase productivity by up to ten times over manual labor.”

Prysm, an Australia-based client, reported a daily savings of about $550 in labeling expenses alone, which meant that the collaborative robot was able to pay for itself in less than 12 months, he says.


What’s trending in tech?

Integrating robotic technology with other automation solutions within a beverage warehouse is “all in the details,” Honeywell Intelligrated’s Wicks states. “In theory, this [should be] easy, but in practice … it’s generally not a trivial activity,” he explains. “… Our robotics solutions for beverage operations currently include palletizing and depalletizing. Robotics can handle a variety of packaging types and sizes, while also improving throughput and consistency.

“As technology continues to advance, more complex tasks can be automated by robotics in the warehouse,” he continues.

FANUC’s Garrett suggests that the integration of robotics continues to get easier as software development advances. For instance, FANUC offers picking and palletizing software, iRPickTool and PalletTool Turbo 2, respectively, for quick load setup and tracking. Both software packages contain an identical PC simulation package with pre-engineering and pre-sales support and a complete end-of-the-line solution.

“These software packages include 4-D graphics, which allow users to see frames, zones and real-time product setup on the teach pendant display,” Garrett explains.

Although robotic systems are becoming more adaptable and flexible, experts note the key to robotics lies in its ability to complement other automation solutions such as fulfillment and warehousing systems to improve productivity and accuracy and reduce costs. Robots also can work quickly and safely alongside human workers to handle millions of different items, they add.

“The challenge is to ‘teach’ robots to pick up things they’ve never handled before, just as a person can, from an unstructured environment such as a bin or a tote,” Universal Robots’ Shepherd says. “This flexible grasping technology has been ‘the holy grail’ in robotics research.”

RIA offers a certified robot integrator program that ensures companies meet standards for expertise, experience and technical proficiency, Doyle says.

Honeywell Intelligrated, on the other hand, recently announced a collaborative relationship with Carnegie Mellon University on next machine learning and robotics controls to help distribution centers address rising eCommerce demands and resource capabilities.


An automated force

RIA’s Doyle notes that robotics technology must evolve to move larger, heavier objects like pallets. For individual SKUs, there’s been some very advanced approaches to gripping. “The combination of AI and robotics holds great promise for businesses,” he says.

Universal Robots’ Shepherd says that the “out-of-box experience” with a collaborative UR robot enables an untrained operator, typically in less than an hour, to unpack the robot, mount it and program the first simple tasks.

The adaptability to a changing physical landscape is a strong suit for robotics technology. “As robots are more fully integrated into existing OEM and plant operations, they can become the glue between disparate operations,” Rockwell Automation’s Wagner says.

FANUC’s Garrett agrees: “The future for robotics technology in the beverage industry is strong. As beverage containers and packages continue to change based on consumer demands and marketing, beverage companies need to have flexible robotic automation to handle these demands.” BI