Modern Packaging Increasingly Depends on Vision, Robotics
| By: Winn Hardin, Contributing Editor
Consider the complexity of modern consumer packaged goods, from iPads to cosmetics. Then there are the track-and-trace requirements of the pharmaceutical industry. Not only do governmental regulations around the world require drugs and medical devices to be tracked from raw materials through final unit sales, these products are regularly manufactured in one location and packaged in another. To meet regulatory requirements, track-and-trace programs need to be very robust to track a wide variety of product types that often appear very similar across multiple manufacturing and packaging facilities. Food processing also is coming under greater regulatory pressure to adopt automation to achieve new track-and-trace, consistency, and cleanliness standards.
Combine regulatory requirements with the needs of modern manufacturing and processing lines that increasingly handle a wider variety of products – each with their own special processing requirements – and the drive in packaging to greater automation, and specifically vision-guided automation, doesn’t just make sense…but dollars, euros, and yuan as well.
Flexible Packaging Drives Markets
“Adept Technology has been in robotic packaging from the beginning,” explains Mark Noschang, Manager of Applications Engineering at robot manufacturer Adept Technology, Inc. (Pleasanton, California). “We brought the first SCARA-style robot to the market, and a year later we introduced vision guidance of robots to the market. During the past few years, we’ve reaffirmed our participation in the packaging market, especially with the addition of new gripping technologies and robot platforms like the high-speed Quattro. Today, we serve both primary and secondary packaging applications, and we’ve also seen a big demand in food packaging as well.” Primary packaging refers to bottles and vials and blister packs, while secondary packaging is the carton or end-of-line packaging.
According to Noschang, packagers – particularly those in the food and other seasonal industries – are moving toward robotic packaging and away from discrete packaging machines due to robotics’ traditional strengths, as well as the increasing need for flexible manufacturing lines.
“Discrete or hard automation systems work great if you’re going to pick up a product from the same position every time, move it another location every time, and not change anything for years,” Noschang adds. “But I haven’t seen an application like that for a long time. Today, a chicken breast processor often uses different packaging for different customers. For example, Wal-Mart may tell the supplier you have this amount of shelf and refrigeration space for your product, but Target will have a different space requirement. So the food processor has to adapt to different customer needs, and hard-tool solutions make that a difficult proposition. With robotic automation, you simply switch to a different program, switch the line, and you’re running – regardless of whether you’re putting 10 waffles in a box for this customer or 24 waffles in a box for another customer. And when you add machine vision, you can verify whether the waffle is burned or has chocolate chips, ensuring that the correct product goes into the right package.”
Machine vision is the final piece of the puzzle. Vision allows the robot to account for variations in part presentation while providing additional value to the customer by adding inspection tasks. A recent example for multi-inspection packaging solutions that use vision comes from LEONI Vision Solutions (Lake Orion, Michigan). LEONI developed a two-step inspection process that could identify cracks and bubbles in both clear portions and opaque areas on painted glass bottles while checking barcodes and labels at the same time. The solution eliminated the need for multiple manual inspectors while providing more consistent results.
Easing Labor Shortages While Improving Quality
In seasonal markets, such as various agricultural products, vision-guided robotics are helping to solve shortages of qualified workers while improving quality. “Seasonal industries have a hard time making sure they have enough labor during crunch times,” Noschang explains. “On top of fluctuating demand throughout the year, these operations often have a lot of turnover among employees, which makes training less cost-effective. You program a robot once and it remembers from one season to the next. It won’t scratch its nose or violate any of the signs you see all along the walls of food processing plants, and it doesn’t require training every year. Moving to a robot automation solution also allows these companies to choose their best workers and move them into line maintenance and other higher paying jobs, which is good for the employer and the employee.”
Today, manufacturing industries are in the middle of an important change as product mixes and the need to respond to individual markets and customers argues against centralizing manufacturing and packaging in low-cost labor markets. Automation is a critical component to bringing manufacturing back to developed countries and markets where overhead costs are higher and customers demand higher product customization. This trend is likely to continue indefinitely. Manufacturers that can quickly respond to local market needs with flexible production and packaging lines will gain an important competitive edge in today’s fast-changing marketplace.