The complete guide to end-of-line packaging and palletizing with robots.
Over the past 50 years, the manufacturing industry has undergone a complete transformation with the introduction of automation and industrial robotics. Factories that had previously relied on manual operations are now increasingly turning to intelligent robots to drive efficiencies, increase safety, and reduce costs throughout the entire production process. For companies that are considering semi-automation or end-to-end automation, it is worth exploring new end-of-line (EOL) robotics technologies that can significantly increase production rates and cost effectiveness. In this guide, we deep dive into two specific areas of industrial robotics – end-of line packaging and palletizing.
What is Robotic End-of-Line Packaging?
Robotic end-of-line packaging (EOLP) refers to the ability to use robots to package a variety of items into boxes, cartons, cases or crates. With consumer demand growing for faster production and delivery times, packagers are deploying more robotic tools to automate end-of-line tasks and drive more productivity.
“Pick and pack robots” are commonly used for end-of-line packaging applications. These are robots that can identify, sort and select specific objects on a conveyor belt using integrated vision systems, and then place them into a box. Packing robots often have a ‘robotic arm’, known as an End-of-Arm Tool (EOAT), that enables them to pick and pack items so precisely that even delicate products like eggs are not damaged. According to a 2017 report published by Allied Market Research, the global packaging robots industry is expected to reach $4,649 million by 2023.
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How to Implement Automation Projects on the Factory Floor Using an Agile Approach
Establishing complex automation on the factory floor can sometimes take months or years to come to fruition. The ROI of complex automation can be substantial, but getting to a point where the automation solutions are in place can be a strenuous process. The waterfall methodology, the standard strategy for seeking software solutions, is extremely linear and does not offer room for creative problem-solving.
However, there is an alternative to the linear, top to bottom model. Using the Agile approach can greatly decrease the time it takes to implement automation for your complex projects.
Adopting the Agile Approach
If you’re looking to efficiently incorporate new automation on the factory floor, the Agile approach could be for you. The Agile approach provides a more dynamic, flexible path towards creative problem-solving. Read over our infographic below to better understand how you can utilize the Agile approach to efficiently achieve your automation solutions. The project you thought might take months to begin could be up and running in a matter of weeks.
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Parts presentation isn’t always the easiest automation problem to solve, but it can be one of the most important in determining the level of automation you can add to a production line. An effective parts presentation platform can provide enough stock to run an entire overnight shift without operator intervention and can eliminate unnecessary alignment steps that slow cycle time. Not all parts and machining operations are good candidates for continuous parts presentation, so understanding the design obstacles and opportunities that your task presents will help you develop the best method for your automation needs.
PARTS PRESENTATION FOR ROBOTIC SYSTEMS
For some machining operations, automated feeders do all the work. Rolled steel can be flattened for stamping presses and long bars can be advanced through the back of the lathe chuck. Other operations require each part to the presented and oriented individually, such as blanks for a press brake or dovetailed stock for a CNC machine.
The latter cases come with two steps: presentation and alignment. Presentation is the step where the parts are made available for the system to grab. Alignment is the step where inconsistencies in the presentation method are eliminated. A well-designed fixture does both steps at once, assuming the geometry of the parts permits it.
Automated parts presentation also comes with a set of challenges. How do you make the feed continuous? How does the automated system locate the next part? What if the feed system fails and the task continues to run without parts? Let’s address these below.
A continuous feed parts presentation method is one where the next part to be machined is automatically located in a set position for the robot arm to grab. The best way to imagine this fixture is a slide which bars of a set length can roll toward a fence. The operator loads the bars and gravity feeds them to the bottom of the slide where the fence holds them in place. The robot arm reaches only for the part against the fence and gravity advances the next part into its place.
In this scenario, the next part to be grabbed is always presented at one location and the fixture can be continuously refilled from the top or designed to be as long as necessary for the desired production time.
Picking from a grid is repeatable and easy to program
True bin picking solutions are cost prohibitive and can be difficult to program. If you can present an array of parts to your system in a grid or a stack, you can simplify the programming and make it easier to adapt to different parts.
Both grids and stacks have their advantages. Stack picking uses force to find the top of the stack and pulls parts until it reaches the bottom. You can use the “Save Position” node to program the Forge Station to remember where the top of the stack is as it pulls parts, shortening the time needed to find each part. Stack picking is best for flat parts. Grid picking works well when parts cannot evenly sit on top of each other or are too large for a stack. Grid picking uses the “Grid” node to create an array of evenly spaced waypoints based on the corners of the grid. Each time the node executes, it will move to the next part in the grid.
When an operator loads a machine, he can check that the part is oriented correctly and placed firmly against the fences or chuck. The Forge Station can use force motions to check that parts are properly placed, but this assumes that they were properly picked up. If a part is slightly askew in the presentation, that inconsistency may carry through to the placement step.
Gravity trays are an effective way to guarantee that all parts are grabbed consistently before being introduced to the machine. A gravity tray is a platform in which a dropped part will roll or slide into a corner from which it can be picked up. Regardless of how the part is dropped, it slides into the same corner and is therefore always grabbed the same way.
Building alignment into your part presentation or end-of-arm tooling is an efficient way to guarantee consistent part handling. Round parts can be centered in a centric 3-finger gripper and bottomed out against machined fingers. Laser cut or waterjet a part grid to present each part in a precise location. Build a fence into your part stack or slide that you can push the next part against before grabbing it, ensuring that it’s bottomed against that surface. These simple alignment additions cut valuable seconds off your cycle time and make programming and production more consistent.
FEED FAILURES OR BAD PARTS
Not all stock fits the way you want. A bent bar or a large burr could be the difference between a good part and a bad part. And a distracted operator could forget to fill a grid, leaving a CNC machine cutting air. You can program force feedback loops that react to a missing or bad part and notify the operator if something is amiss.
Use a force motion to grab parts from a grid and pause the task if the robot arm doesn’t feel a part where it should be. Check that a part has seated properly in a chuck by moving the robot arm over the top of it. If the part isn’t bottomed out, the arm will collide with it and can either attempt to place it again or put the part in a reject bin.
THE FORGE STATION
Certain part geometries require certain part presentation setups. Others leave room for experimentation. The Forge Station gives you the flexibility to try a variety of solutions until you find the one that fits. With interactive tools that notify operators when parts are low and an interface that encourages new ideas, the Forge Station will never be an obstacle to the automation environment best suited to your task.
If the Forge Station is your first foray into collaborative automation, you may feel a bit overwhelmed by the prospect of putting a robot arm in front of a machine tool and setting it up to run. As much as we wish the Jetsons’ plug-and-play technology were ready for the real world, those of us still in the present need to take more consideration when preparing a robot arm for a new task.
REQUIREMENTS FOR RUNNING THE FORGE STATION
All Forge Station systems with a Universal Robots arm require 120V power to operate. READY Robotics recommends compressed air between 90 and 110 psi to use pneumatic grippers and peripherals, such as suction grippers and the PedalMate. With just 120V power, the Forge Station is limited to the electric Robotiq 2-finger gripper and PLC I/O box as a peripheral.
Because the Universal Robots arms are collaborative, they are designed to work near people. However you should always perform a risk assessment of any task that you plan to program, including any peripherals, grippers, or other Forge Station-controlled add-ons to the system.
WHAT TYPES OF TASKS WORK BEST?
Not every job in your facility may be ideal for automation. Certain tasks require cost-prohibitive custom solutions while others require a level of dexterity not yet offered by most automation solutions. Identifying the tasks at which the Forge Station excels will set you up for success by the end of your first program.
In general, a single arm collaborative robot works best at:
Pick and place: palletizing boxes, moving parts from a table onto a conveyor or into a bin/box
Machine tending: loading and unloading CNC machines, presenting parts to a press brake, pushing stock through an iron worker
Light assembly: part stacking with low force assembly, part preparation/staging
Consider the followings factors when choosing a task within your facility:
Can I perform this function with one hand? If not, do simple tools such as an automated pedal enable one-handed operation?
Does the task require a lot of force? The Forge Station R10 has a 10kg (22lbs) payload, but certain precise motions may apply much less force.
Are the parts for this task easy to stack or present to the system? The ideal part for untended automation is one that stacks well or can be presented with a gravity feeder. Parts that cannot be organized in bulk work well so long as someone is presenting them to the system.
Does the task involve a lot of operator downtime? It’s much less expensive for a robot arm to sit in front of a CNC machine with a 45-minute cycle time.
Are motions in the task repeated consistently over time? A simple task such as loading 500 parts into a drill press is easy to program and easy to run. If parts have varying geometries or operations that change frequently, programming the task will be more challenging.
THE WORKSPACE AROUND THE SYSTEM
The R5 system has a reach of 86cm (34in) and the R10 has a reach of 129cm (51in). Any objects or surfaces with which the robot arm will interact must be within this workspace. Any obstacles which could damage or be damaged by the robot arm should be cleared.
Part presentation and storage should be within reach of the robot arm, though you can take advantage of simple solutions such as ramps or part feeders to place feed or storage bins outside of the arm’s workspace.
Any object in the Forge Station’s workspace with which the system will interact should be rigidly attached either to the Forge Station stand or the floor, or be able to be made stationary through wheel brakes or pins.
NO SUCH THING AS FAILURE
Maybe you don’t have the success you were expecting on your first attempt to set up a job with the Forge Station. That’s okay! Every time you use your Forge Station system, you’re discovering new shortcuts, best practices, and easy workarounds that will help you to create the task you need to create more product.
If the task you initially identified turned out to be a bust, consider where the failures occurred. Was the end-of-arm-tooling not correct? Were there too many inconsistencies in the operational environment? Use these lessons learned to identify and develop the next task, and you’ll find that success is just a robot arm’s length away.