Should you implement robotics in your packaging operations?

Nov 01, 2010

This article is part of a special feature on packaging that was published in the November issue of PTE Digital, available at http://www.pharmtech.com/ptedigital1110.

Robots are becoming faster, cheaper and smaller. In pharmaceutical packaging applications, robots are often used at the end of the process — either in the primary packing of product into small packs, or further downstream product packing into cartons and subsequent palletising. There are many different types of robots with different capabilities, but the main advantages are increased flexibility (shorter changeover times) and availability (fewer moving parts that can create down time).

There is also a trend to use robots in high-speed picking applications. Here there are two major advantages: improved hygiene, as people are not in contact with the product, and higher productivity, with less people employed for the same throughput. Some robots are capable of up to 150 cycles per minute and, indeed, it is high-speed picking projects that often offer the most attractive investment proposition for end users as one robot typically undertakes the work done by three staff at a more consistent rate.

When the capacity of the robot is high, fewer robots are required, which gives a better return on investment. Combined with integrated vision, the robot can be guided where to pick using one or more cameras, rather than the robot picking from a fixed position. More mechanical parts are needed for fixed position robots and this creates less flexibility and availability.

Of course, there are always other areas in the industry that offer potential for robot use, including laboratory automation and testing. However, these areas tend to use a single robot with a specific design rather than the more generic, multi-robot layouts often found in production environments.

The disadvantage of robots is mainly based on conservatism in the industry where there is often discomfort and a lack of confidence in implementing a supposedly “high‑tech” robot solution, when in fact the robot is a standard, factory‑manufactured product.

The benefits of robots

The key benefit that the use of robots offers in packaging operations is the ability to improve line efficiency. For example, a recent UK-based project conducted by ABB saw line Overall Equipment Effectiveness rise considerably as a result of introducing IRB360 Flexpicker robots, which increased throughput and achieved a more consistent product flow into the downstream secondary packaging areas. Indeed, the company is now looking at all areas of the site to see how similar technology could be adopted. The implementation of the robots also resulted in savings thanks to a reduction in labour, whilst enriching the skills of those employees who now run the line. Quality and consistency of the packed product also improved as the robot based solution is more forgivable and tolerant to variations in the product and packaging material. With the product now packed on a more consistent basis, the client is also investing in automating the downstream cartoning operations to realise further efficiency gains.

Overcoming barriers to implementation

When implementing robotics, cost is always an issue, but focusing on the returns that such an investment brings, such as higher productivity and lower labour costs, often helps a client who may be considering robotic automation. Sometimes a simple return on investment calculation is enough, but in other cases more discussion is required at an early stage to fully understand the overall benefits and cost reductions that can be achieved. We do tend to see a reluctance to change the way that the process is done — often related to validation issues and a fear that the technology will not work on the client’s particular product — but demonstrating reference applications, reference visits and trials on a client’s own product can assist the decision-making process. Product contamination can also be a concern, but many robots are now available with certified clean room specifications.

Over time, the cost of robotic technology has decreased as robot performance has increased. Robots are becoming faster, more accurate and smaller, and in the future we will see robots specifically designed to fulfill multiple uses in both primary and secondary packaging, as well as having the capability to work in direct interaction with people. In the future, robots will also have a more inherent capability to learn a new operation without the need for programming. This will further add to the flexibility of the robot, providing an even better return on the initial investment, and further driving down the manufacturing cost of the product.