The use of the term robotics has suddenly become a somewhat sophisticated reference when discussing change from human effort to mechanization either by programmable logic controllers, mechanical devices, automated machines or a combination of any one of these alternatives. But, how far will the current robotics trend go? 

To provide a logical and practical answer, a review of why the robotic concept started, how it has evolved, and where it currently is progressing in the beverage arena of producers and distributors are logical steps necessary to make a reasonable assessment of what may drive or impact the future of robotics.

When did this concept start? Research indicates no specific time period that robotic concepts entered the industrial world; however, sometime during the industrial revolution (circa 1800), machine designers, tool makers and efficiency experts were developing devices to replace human effort when performing various manufacturing tasks. That means the present robotic idea is probably more than 200 years old. During this time, amidst wars, technological advances in every industry and changes in management philosophy and acceptance of robotics, devices were designed by necessity, built on fast tracks and applied with varying degrees of success. Further research can attest to the historical robotic device evolution.

Keep in mind, robotic devices were and will probably continue to replace human effort, which traditionally increases productivity and reduces cost.

From an operations and engineering perspective, it is important to realize creation, building and application of multiple robotic devices included in the layout of most manufacturing layouts is a step toward eventual automation to some degree. 

The beverage industry, like most process type manufacturing, might have been unlikely to reach out for robots; however, a review of the supply chain will not only relate an active past, but also several current applications that could contribute to future possibilities as operating, marketing and economic conditions change. 

Beverage processing might have subtle robots, but this area ― which deals with raw materials, measuring and formulations ― is conducive to replacing human operators with computerized programs only requiring a push of the button.

Production packaging lines potentially are open season for creating robotic type devices resulting in operators becoming attendants in many situations. The following are several examples:

  • Unloading of containers regardless of receipt method involves wenches, conveyors and programmed sweep arms, all without human hands.
  • Closures and lids in individual packages that are fed into magazines could soon become repackaged to be automatically fed into seamers and cappers.
  • Preparing containers for filling, by any current method is an in/out operation done mechanically, while filling, although tended by an “operator,” does its job without help and can become programmed with an attendant.

The discharge end of the packaging line has rapidly advanced, which has prompted faster line speeds and complex packaging configurations. Case packers are almost extinct because cases have become unit packages and are programmed through palletizing devices to form pallet loads for movement to storage, with no human hands. The pallets, once loaded, might move to storage by automated guided vehicles (AGVs) or some other device where they will be stored until automatically activated by paperless “robots” whose electronic eyes will remove it from the warehouse to the pre-distribution phase.

The bottom line is, do robotic applications have limitations? The answer is very few. Thus, in beverages, the sky’s the limit, the obstacles ― human beings.