Learn more about food production packaging! Regional sales manager, Derek Williams, talks about how Brenton ensures food items are handled and packaged with the utmost care. Featuring information on washdown, end of arm tooling, vision, and cold room packaging solutions.
There are countless benefits to robotics in packaging but one hang-up has always been the robotic teach pendent. This pendent is utilized to program and maneuver the robot including managing faults and jogging the machine. For someone who is well versed in robotics, a teach pendent is not an issue. However, once the machine is installed and running in a facility, operators need to have user friendly access to the machine. That is where robotic HMI interfacing comes into play. We are going to look at three benefits for integrating the robot with the HMI.
Single Point of Operation
The first benefit to interfacing with the robot through the HMI is having a single point of operation for the entire line. Operators are familiar with the HMI platform, navigating the teach pendent can prove cumbersome. Most lines are fully integrated to one HMI platform, allowing a single operator to run the entire system. When the robot is interfacing with the line’s HMI they can track the robot’s status, adjust application parameters, robotic positions and run programs all from a facility-familiar platform. To eliminate the operator’s need for the teach pendent allows them to run the entire line from a common HMI platform increasing OEE. This interface makes it easier to start, stop, troubleshoot and make adjustments to the robot (which we will discuss further, below) as well as the entire line.
Managing Faults and Changeover
As mentioned above, the HMI is a much more familiar platform than the teach pendent, simplifying the management of faults and changeover. Alarms and alarm history are echoed from the teach pendent to the HMI. The HMI allows operators to quickly diagnose the fault for shortened downtime. When jogging is required, overall layouts are displayed on the HMI. A more descriptive pattern for Changeover is another benefit received when interfacing with the HMI. Operators can pull information about the entire line and manage changeover and run time.
Display and Functionality
Finally, the most visually obvious benefit, the aesthetics of the HMI. As we move towards PC based HMIs, graphic display is impeccable, functioning much like our smart phones and tablets. Additionally, options available on the HMI such as language and layout, whether PC based or not, are greater than what is offered on the teach pendent.
The HMI will steal the show for much of day to day functionality, but, for now, the teach pendent will maintain its roll. The teach pendent still serves a primary purpose for the robot. Aside from initial set up, the teach pendent is also utilized during standard and preventative maintenance.
There is growing interest in consolidating palletizing/stretch wrapping operations closer to the shipping dock or warehouse facility in order to free up space for additional packaging capacity. Running multiple conveyors to a single palletizer/stretch wrapping operation not only adds valuable real estate for expanding packaging operations, but also offers these advantages:
- Minimizes the number of palletizers/stretch wrappers at the plant thereby decreasing capital costs and maintenance and labor
- Lowers handling time associated with moving pallets
- Keeps the packaging room cleaner by reducing the dust associated with shipping cases and fork trucks
- Improves safety by removing fork trucks from areas of high foot traffic
There are two solutions for multiple infeed palletizing, robotic cells and conventional palletizers.
Robotic palletizers can accommodate multiple infeed lines – two to five lines per robot on average – and either single or multiple discharge lanes. The robots’ claims to fame are their flexibility and quick changeover. Depending on its end-of-arm tooling, a robot can handle various types of shipping containers – RSC, HSC, bags, and more. Robots are re-deployable and reprogrammable for use in other areas of the plant. Robotic palletizers are also scalable; as more infeed conveyors are added additional robotic cells can be cost effectively and efficiently installed. Robotic palletizers do not require accumulation conveyors, which is a large cost savings. In many applications the robotic palletizer has a smaller footprint than a conventional palletizer.
High level, high speed palletizers are notable for their speed and volume capacity. These are large, rugged automated systems capable of forming pack patterns and laying down seven or more pallet layers per minute. These workhorses can handle up to 10 infeed lines. Accumulation conveyors are required for each infeed line to a conventional palletizer, adding cost to the system and expanding the footprint required. A rule of thumb is that each infeed line needs to accumulate a minimum number of cases equivalent to one and a half pallet loads.
Conventional high level palletizers come in multiple configurations in order to accommodate a wide variety of plant layouts. Control systems store multiple pack patterns and enable rapid automatic changeover. In state-of-the-art machines, touch screen pack pattern programming saves time and makes the operation of the equipment more efficient. Footprint is typically larger than the robotic palletizer. Advanced servo technology identifies problems with pack patterns more quickly than ever before and, like robots, remote diagnostics and tech support help create greater uptime.
Unfortunately, there is no rule of thumb for when to apply a robotic cell or a conventional palletizer
It would be wonderful to be able to say definitively that lower volume multiple infeed systems always do best with robotic systems and heavier volume multiple lanes are ideal for conventional palletizers. It is not that simple. There are a wide number of factors that impact which system is best for the operation. These variables include:
- Cases per minute
- Number of SKUs
- Pack patterns required
- Case sizes
- Type of shipping material
- Number of infeed lines
- Future plans for the operation in terms of new products and expansion potential
- Return on investment (ROI)
For example, a customer came to Currie by Brenton with plans to run eight different infeed lines a single palletizing area. Based on the generalization that one robot is best for two to five lanes and the conventional palletizer best for three to ten lanes, the obvious answer would be to specify the conventional palletizer.
However, based on the cases per minute, number of SKUs, pack patterns, budget, lack of room for accumulation conveyors, and a number of other factors, the Currie by Brenton applications engineering team determined that the optimum investment for this customer would be four robotic cells, each of which would handle two lines. See Figure 1 for a schematic of the actual four stations being staged at the factory acceptance tests.
A second customer came to the applications team with the desire to consolidate three lines into one palletizer. A candidate for a robot cell? Turns out a conventional palletizer was the best solution based on budget, ROI, volume, and pack pattern. See Figure 2 for the final schematic.
And lastly, another customer wanted a system for five multiple lines. Could the solution be two robots or perhaps one high level palletizer? No. Volume and pack pattern were such that this customer came away with a highly cost effective one robot system. See Figure 3 for a line drawing. These examples demonstrate that there is no easy approximation for identifying the best system. Each application must be examined on its own merits and a unique determination made.
When moving lines to a central area, it is best to work with an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) with expertise in both high level high speed palletizers and robotic palletizing cells. The dual system OEM will be neutral in finding the best solution, while the single system OEM can only respond with its solution, not necessarily the best solution.
The new solution has to be an integrated one – conveyors, palletizer, and stretch wrapper all tied together. Either a system integrator will put it together or the palletizer OEM will be the integrator and stage the factory acceptance test. There is a case to be made for the OEM as integrator. The reason is that the palletizer – either robotic or traditional – is the anchor device. To work effectively, the conveyors must infeed and discharge perfectly with the whole system streamlined for communication handshakes between units upstream and downstream of the palletizer. No one knows how to efficiently operate the palletizer and maintain the proper flow as well as the OEM. This is a powerful rationale for the OEM to integrate the system.
When discussing the project with the OEM determine whether the technical and project management teams have a track record of success. Definitely tour the factory acceptance test area at the OEM’s facility. Is it off in an unused corner of the building or does the OEM have a properly outfitted and spacious staging area for the factory acceptance test? It will become apparent quickly whether the OEM is right for the job of supplier and integrator.
The main point to remember is that the necessary technology exists for a central palletizing area to be successful, but it requires application expertise and robotic or conventional palletizing options in order to obtain the optimum solution.
This multi-line robotic palletizing system includes four production lines that are palletized by three FANUC Palletizing Robots in two separate robot cells. In this, the first of the two cells, a FANUC M-410iB palletizing robot is used to palletize from two of the four production lines. Cases are fed to the palletizing area on a shared interconnect conveyor, and a case diverter separates products to two case infeed conveyors. The robot picks a two-row matrix of cases, utilizing multi-zone vacuum tooling. Robots in the system place the cases to the pallet in the appropriate location for the product being run. Once a pallet is complete, it is conveyed away from the palletizing station to the fork truck pick station at the end of the conveyor. Then the robot moves to pick an empty pallet and tier sheet for replacement and the cycles repeat.
In the system’s second robotic work cell, two robots palletize products of different sizes. First, as in the first work cell, a FANUC M-410iB palletizing robot is responsible for handling of pallets and sheets for the two pallet stations, and for palletizing products in a two-row matrix with its vacuum gripper. In the second palletizing station, a FANUC R-1000iA/80H robot utilizes vacuum venturi tooling for case handling and palletizing. Cases are fed into this cell on a shared interconnect conveyor with case sortation.
Each robot cell in the system includes case decline conveyors, case sortation, case accumulation, case metering, pick conveyors, vacuum end of arm tools, pallet and sheet racks, three-strand drag chain conveyor for load handling, case bypass conveyors for manual palletizing capability, perimeter guard package, necessary controls, and finally FANUC’s industry-leading palletizing robots.
This system is ideal for companies sending cases down a common trunk line and require case sorting via bar code readers. For companies with both small and large cases, this solution also provides cost savings and footprint saving due to robot economies. In the cell featuring two robots (one large and one small), the large robot had utilization time available to perform pallet handling and slip-sheet placement for both its line and one other line. As such, a smaller payload and footprint robot is able to be placed in the other line.
Nephron Pharmaceuticals Corp. is a global leader in the manufacture of generic respiratory medications. All of its products are manufactured in the U.S., and are supplied to retail pharmacies, hospitals, home care companies, long-term care facilities, mail-order pharmacies, and various other customers worldwide.
One of the Orlando, FL-based company’s leading products is an Albuterol Sulfate inhalation solution– a bronchodilator used for the relief of bronchospasm in patients with reversible airway obstruction disease and acute attacks of bronchospasm. The small vials that carry the medication are sensitive to light and temperature and must be hermetically sealed in a foil pouch and stored in controlled conditions.
Nephron specializes in blow/fill/seal (BFS) manufacturing, a technology that allows a flexible plastic vial of medication to be formed, filled, and sealed in a continuous process without human intervention in a sterile, securely enclosed area. Filled vials are then foil-pouched and packed into cartons, with 12 cartons packed into a shipping case. The cases holding vials packaged for sale in a card format are placed on end for palletizing, with vials placed in an upright position for shipping.
When Nephron began planning this new production facility to meet its growing market demand, its goal was to make the entire production process as automated as possible. This included integrating the packaging line with laser-guided vehicles delivering medication and packaging material to the line to create fully automated production, as well as automated pallet building, protective corner board placement, and stretch wrapping systems for the packaging lines.
It was intended to allow Nephron to minimize line personnel. Automation enables the process to run more efficiently, consistently, and with minimal human interaction that can potentially cause quality issues.
In 2009 Brenton installed a custom robotic system to depalletize and palletize trays for the Albuterol Sulfate lines at Nephron. Given the success of that installation, Brenton was selected for the lines in the new South Carolina plant and to add a similar end-of-line automated system to a new line being built at the Orlando facility. The design of those systems began in late 2013.
Building and protecting pallet loads
There were several challenges to be addressed by the project’s end-of-line system in the South Carolina facility.
The first was that while the cartons of pouched vials for a particular medication and pallet pattern were packed into shipping cases in traditional configurations, as the cases traveled the conveyor with the short side leading, those cases were required to be palletized on their ends, in order to keep the vials upright during shipping. This was a change from the original design specification for the specific medication, but Brenton adapted the robotic system to handle it.
The second requirement was that Nephron required the top of the pallet to be wrapped in order for it to be covered and sealed to provide protection from moisture infiltration.
To meet the challenge of re-orienting the cases as they reach the palletizing area, the pallet-building robot included in the system design was designed to use half of its grippers to invert each case on end before positioning the case in the pallet load. That allowed the system to build the entire pallet with the shipping cases resting on their end panels.
In spite of the fact that the pallet load was built with the cases resting on their shorter sides, the loads proved to be stable during factory testing.
Once the pallet is built, it is conveyed to an FA automatic stretch wrapper turntable from Orion, another Pro Mach division. The next step is to apply protective corner boards. Nephron requires corner boards on all of its pallet loads to ensure that product or package quality is not compromised during shipping.
A robot places the boards. In this instance, since the Nephron line operates at a moderate pace, the boards are placed individually as the load indexes 90° on the FA turntable, rather than on two corners at a time, as on higher-speed lines where speed is essential. The slower speed also helps maintain the stability of the pallet load until it is securely wrapped.
Once corner boards are placed, the Orion FA system wraps the load at 15 revolutions/min, securing the entire load. When the wrap is complete, the load is conveyed off the wrapper to the adjacent gantry top sheet placement area. The polypropylene (PP) top sheet is positioned, after which the load is conveyed back onto the FA turntable for a final wrap that secures the top sheet to the load and provides tamper evidence.
The project timeline
The fabrication of the new palletizing systems for the lines at Nephron’s South Carolina facility was completed in mid-October 2013, and assembly of the systems began the week after fabrication. The first set of systems underwent Factory Acceptance Testing (FAT) in April 2014 at Brenton’s manufacturing facility. Following installation at the Nephron South Carolina facility in late October 2014 by Brenton, the new systems were debugged and tested onsite. They were integrated into Nephron’s Manufacturing Information Systems (MIS) and were commissioned late spring 2015.