Every industry is confronted with new and/or advanced technology to make products better, faster and more economical. During most technological development, two categories — robotics and automation — appear to come front and center with questions raised regarding: what is involved in each category; and how are they related or interfaced?

Automation basically involves programming mechanical or electrical devices to perform tasks according to set times and locations. Tasks in this category might or might not be robotic; however, they are related and interfaced to perform.

The robotics category receives many interpretations and definitions, but simply stated any device designed to replace human-manual motion can safely be called robotic. Therefore, beverage production lines might have workstation tasks that in subtle ways possess both categories, being semi or fully automatic and/or being partially or completely robotic, or in many applications, a combination of both.

Robotic ideas date back to the 19th century. During almost a century of time, creative engineers, inventors, designers and other innovators have been exposed to the changes brought by the industrial revolution. This includes mass production concepts and wars, like World War II, which possibly gave rise to many robotic and automation designs and applications being used in today’s beverage manufacturing operations.

This history brief, from whence today’s robotic ideas, applications and progress have emanated, is a basis in fact of a transition that started years ago and one that still is evolving. So where did the transition begin with beverage producers, how profusely are current beverage supply chains utilizing robotic type devices and what are the results of these applications? Supply chain chronology showcases the transition using various workstations to review some basic and significant applications.

From an operations perspective, the first production line workstation, container input, is used to exemplify a basic robotic concept: container input handling. In the past, wooden cases, returnable bottles and size variations were the operating conditions for one of the initial robotic/automated applications. The machine, an un-caser, had the capability of automatically positioning a multi-headed structure over a conveyor containing cases of empty glass bottles from which it then indexed robotic type fingers into the cases, removed bottles to another conveyor, then was repositioned to start a repetitive cycle with no manual labor involved.

However, the conveyor with empty bottles actually became a “moving robot” because it was providing containers for the next workstation. The moving robot conveyor approach represents a subtle robotic application. Nevertheless, the containers on the conveyor are indexed progressively into a washer or rinser for cleaning; a filler for filling; a capper, crowner or seamer for closing the container; a labeler for labels; and a coding device depending on the container before the next container handling occurs.

At this point, from an engineering viewpoint, the moving conveyor robot role is changed because containers have been accumulated, must be separated/reoriented and ready for unitizing, either into cases fed by a packer or into a multi-pack machine, which in any case requires container orientation robots into whatever unit is being produced.

In some operations, a continuous flow type of machinery has been developed to eliminate sequential steps and speed up the unitizing workstation output. The robots still are there, but they are completely reconfigured to handle a variety of containers and packages to complete the units being produced.

The next step involves palletizing units. After beverage units are discharged from unitizing, they enter the palletizing workstation for stacking on pallets. Palletizers, floor and elevated models, have been developed and are capable of being programmed to accept, tier by tier, many sizes of units to create full pallet loads. The configuration of input conveyors that feed units onto each tier can be called automated robotic arms because, again, no manual labor is involved.

Freestanding robotic arms have been used for many years to compete with palletizing units (stacking on pallets, individually or bunches); however, several factors such as space, speed and capability prompted “banks” of robotic arms to be installed. Speed, package configuration and pallet size have advanced to enhance the applications and results.

Automated storage areas now accept pallet loads by either forklifts or automated guided vehicles (AGVs) with no actual robotics involved. However, a final step in the robotic transition is on the horizon — the future. With all automated and robotic concepts, designs and applications, one big challenge remains prominent: to automatically or robotically load beverage delivery vehicles without forklifts. In context of a fully automated production line, it will be interesting to see what role advanced robotics will play in the final step of beverage distribution. BI