Integrating robotics into our systems – and our thinking
Omron’s Robert Brooks, product marketing manager motion and drives, argues that robotics should be thought of as just one of many ingredients in the ever richer recipe behind automation.
For managers in those parts of consumer goods manufacturing where robotics have not made significant inroads, the idea of a ‘robot’ is likely to conjure up images of a huge standalone system.
Of course, this type of robot has its place in a heavy lifting role, such as palletising. But increasingly, robot systems are being integrated into other operations and processes, sitting among multiple functions on a single operating platform. So, while the popular image of a robot may be a six-axis giant working in the automotive industry, there are many opportunities for them to play a role dovetailed into complex handling scenarios helping to automate food packaging lines.
This is especially true of a delta style robot, the fastest picking system capable of performing on-the-fly pick and place operations at up to 150 cycles per minute. These robots, often washdown certified, have been developed to fit seamlessly into a single operating control platform, alongside servo drives and motion control, PLCs, safety, vision, temperature control – and more – all linked by the same software.
Despite their lean looks and compact shape, these delta robots can handle the vast majority of food products (both primary and secondary packaging applications) and are able to handle payloads of up to 3kgs. Fast and efficient handling of foods with irregular surfaces, like raw meat or unwrapped bakery items, or delicate items including confectionery and cookies, is now a breeze for delta robots with integrated vision. Coupled with adaptive grippers, which imitate a human’s grasp using force control functions, placement of cookies into trays or tomatoes into a shelf ready punnet can be completed in a gentile manner without waste.
Maybe it is time we saw robotic systems as just one more component in the mix of automation solutions – albeit a highly flexible one.
Flexible and versatile
That flexibility can be a huge benefit for end users and machine builders who embrace robots as an integral part of their automation platform, especially when they are used to replace less flexible – or perhaps more complex – electromechanical systems. In many cases, they can form a vital part of the link between two processes or machines.
With robotics and vision systems, a versatile packaging solution can be created with automatic changeover functions, reducing maintenance and machine downtime. These technologies are now much easier to integrate. So no matter how many different package shapes or sizes are required, often a single machine can handle them all – without sacrificing speed and productivity.
Thinking differently about robotics can have other benefits. For instance, a few in the food industry have seen this sort of investment as being difficult to justify on the basis of returns, given the unpredictability of many retailer relationships.
The other side of this story is that, for those able to invest, robotic components allow manufacturers not only to respond flexibly to changing retailer demands, but also to be proactive about plugging a gap in the market. They are likely to permit a far wider range of options for new product, pack formats or size options.
Integration and synchronisation
There are precedents for this sort of shift in thinking. Only a few years ago, the use of servo drives in food, pharma and packaging equipment was thought of – in some quarters – as an over specified and indulgent luxury. Today, they are an essential component in any high-speed line aiming to combine compact design with precision and repeatability.
Within an optimal automation platform, robots share the same communications system as other servo drives and connect to the same controller. Line managers and operators who are comfortable with servos are likely to feel the same way about integrated delta robots. Set up and operation are straightforward. The latest controllers will run up to eight robots, synchronising up to 64 axes of motion, and a single controller makes for simpler operation, co-ordinating motion for the entire machine and reducing space requirements.
The synchronisation of multiple machines or lines can be fully programmed thanks to a powerful command set developed especially for pick and place applications that use delta robots. Programming to IEC 61131-3 standards can be carried out within an intuitive software package with access to a comprehensive robotics library to make it simple to set up sophisticated robot motion profiles. Further to this, integration with other components can be completed via on-board EtherCAT, with an EtherNet/IP port also included for communications with higher level systems.
Meanwhile, it is not only end users – and potential users – who are rethinking the contribution made by robotics. In the past, parts of the food industry have at times felt there was a poor fit between robots (often automation in general) and its own requirements, particularly before the packaging stage. A huge amount of work is currently going into both washdown versions of pick-and-place systems and end actuators – grippers and other tooling – which take account of the variable size and shape of food components.
In many of these applications, the ability to combine robotics with integrated vision is already proving invaluable in high-accuracy pick-and-place, for instance, where randomly spaced product presents itself on an infeed conveyor. Gripper technologies mean that even potentially fragile products can be safely manipulated this way.
What is the most important factor of a successful packaging line? We believe that the answer is know-how; having the knowledge about all of the handling, filling, wrapping and other advanced processes that, when fully understood, can be harmonised to truly create the optimum machine design. Any project, from those handling simple packed foods through to delicate fresh foods, can all benefit in terms of operational flexibility by utilising robotic systems, especially when combined with vision systems and compliant actuators.
Robot technology is as varied and fast developing as the other elements contributing to improved, more streamlined automation; a multi-bit tool in a wider, ever growing toolbox.
But if there remains a stubborn feeling that robots are, in fact, qualitatively different from all the other automation options on offer, there might be a reason for this. Just as the programmability of robots offers more options, it also offers more benefits.
So, yes, robots are different. There can be few other single components which offer reliability, consistent product quality, greater flexibility, reduced wastage, improved efficiency and safety – as well as the potential cost benefits of a redeployed workforce.