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Universal Robots’ cobots aid dairy companies in packaging, palletizing

By Trina La Susa


Photo courtesy of Universal Robots

FLEXIBLE SOLUTIONS — Columbia/Okura LLC, a partner company of Universal Robots (UR), has created the miniPAL, a flexible cobot palletizer based on a UR Robot. Each of the UR Robots are general purpose, reprogrammable standard robots that are engineered into packaging solutions by systems integrators, original equipment manufacturers and some end users.
 Photo courtesy of Universal Robots
CROSS PALLETRON — Cross Co. released the Cross Palletron, a solution that utilizes a Universal Robot arm to create a fully collaborative and mobile palletizer and depalletizer.

MADISON, Wis. — Smaller dairy manufacturers constantly are changing manufacturing lines and reconfiguring products to adapt to new trends in packaging formats and meet consumer demand. To aid in the flexibility of the manufacturing process, Universal Robots (UR) is enabling companies of all sizes to more easily incorporate collaborative robots into packaging, palletizing and production operations, according to Joe Campbell, senior manager, strategic marketing and application development, UR.

Collaborative robots, also known as cobots, are a form of robotic automation built to work safely alongside human workers in a shared, collaborative workspace, according to Campbell. The accuracy, uptime, ease of programming and repeatability of collaborative robots is designed to complement the intelligence and problem-solving skills of a human worker. For the dairy industry in particular, he notes that UR’s cobots can assist in secondary case packing and palletizing.

“When it comes down to packaging fundamentals, there’s primary packaging where you take a block of cheese and put it into a shrink wrap cover, then secondary pack is where you take 24 of those 1-pound cheese blocks and put them into a case, which most people call case packing.

From there, you would take those cases and stack them on a pallet before you ship them off to the retailer,” Campbell says.

“Where our cobots do particularly well is an environment where there’s a lot of variability between product lines, the cases may be different sizes, the product may be different sizes, the pallets may have different stack patterns,” he says. “It’s very easy to set up and redeploy our units into a new application, and that has always been the challenge particularly for lower volume food manufacturers with a higher mix of products.”

Campbell says about 95% of the company’s sales volume in the United States is from UR’s four primary robot models: UR3 Robot, UR5 Robot, UR10 Robot and UR16 Robot. The numbers of each model reflect the payload capacity in kilograms. He notes that UR10 Robots almost always apply to palletizing, while UR16 Robots are used for either packaging or palletizing due to the slightly heavier payload.

Each of the UR Robots are general purpose, reprogrammable standard robots that are engineered into packaging solutions by systems integrators, original equipment manufacturers and even some end users, according to Campbell.

“We sell a generic, standard robot, then our partner companies that have an area specialty take it and build it into their particular application area,” Campbell says. “For example, Columbia/Okura LLC has created the miniPAL, a flexible cobot palletizer based on the UR robot.”

Collaborative technology involves incremental automation, meaning companies are able to make incremental investments in the manufacturing process and do not have to automate all of the process steps at once, Campbell says.

“Pick one process that particularly is dull, dirty or dangerous — which is universally unappealing to young generations — and solve that with collaborative automation working side-by-side with the skilled human operators on the line,” Campbell says. “Let that modest investment generate return, then pick another process step and automate it. We’ve seen time and again in plants large and small how this approach to incremental automation is very sustainable and generates high returns.”

One of the other reasons collaborative robots are so attractive is because they are quick to install and deploy, Campbell adds. Smaller companies do not have to hire robotic specialists if they don’t have them. UR has streamlined and simplified the training process for cobots through its training program, UR Academy.

The cobots take about two hours to learn through UR Academy, and to date, the company has trained more than 100,000 users around the world in 130 countries and in eight languages, Campbell notes. In addition, he says UR has worked to bring physical training centers close to the customer, and there now are 56 authorized training centers around the world and growing. This has changed the equation of automation training and made it very reachable to small or medium companies, he adds.

“There’s about a quarter-million manufacturing plants in the United States, and 90% of them have less than 100 employees. If you’re a company that has less than 100 employees, you probably do not have a robot specialist or roboticist on your staff,” Campbell says. “We really can bring automation to these companies that normally would not be able to deploy traditional automation because they don’t have the technical resources.”

• Cobots in COVID

In January, Campbell led a webinar on how cobots are supporting resilient businesses as they work through the COVID-19 pandemic and how collaborative technology can help solve today’s labor shortage challenges.

As plants continue to stay open during the pandemic, Campbell notes that companies are trying to build social distancing into their manufacturing lines, but it can be difficult and expensive. He says the advantage for cobots is that they can drop in and work side-by-side with skilled human operators.

“The nice thing about collaborative technology is that it can be imbedded in a line to give operators social distancing and a set manufacturing floor,” Campbell says.

To achieve social distancing leveraging cobots, Campbell says the features most commonly exercised in cobot applications include: incremental automation, rapid deployment robotics, cost effective/fast return on investment (ROI), easy to learn and program, UR+ Ecosystem Components and Kits, and limited space requirements.

In addition, he says collaborative technology assists in accelerated reshoring as cobots are very quick to deploy relative to traditional automation. As a result, this can facilitate a fast reshoring process and generate a quicker ROI along the way.

Cobots also allow for greater manufacturing flexibility. Campbell says the very nature of collaborative technology allows rapid redeployment, and that gives manufacturers the option to change their production mix very quickly to adapt to changes in production.

“It’s quite common for our robots to be mounted on a cart and move from one operation to another depending on the work flow for that day,” Campbell says.

Specifically, the robot can become a flexible device that can be moved throughout the manufacturing process as the production mix changes, Campbell says. He notes that this is very popular with job shops and those in the contract manufacturing world, including assembly, machining, welding, molding or packaging. The companies that really embrace this technology now have fleets of robots that get redeployed based on production schedules for the day or week, according to Campbell.

“The No. 1 issue that we consistently wrestle with, even in today’s environment, is manufacturing labor,” Campbell says. “When we talk about the labor challenge, we talk about availability, cost to hire, cost to train.

We’ve heard a tremendous amount about the skills gap and then compound that with workforce retention and high turnover in manufacturing.”

In the short term of the pandemic, Campbell says there are about 30 million people unemployed in the United States. He notes that this short-term unemployment will not translate into the skilled manufacturing workforce, where there are major issues such as skills gaps, training costs and career preferences outside of manufacturing.

“We were doing an analysis in the Green Bay, Wisconsin, area and identified 346 active job postings for machine operators within a 50-mile radius,” he says. “That really shows the depth of the labor challenge even in the current environment. Today, there’s roughly a half-million unfilled manufacturing jobs in the United States, and this remains a significant problem.”

Baby boomers, those 55 and older, currently represent 27% of the manufacturing workforce, and Campbell says younger generations are not interested in working in the traditional factory environment and filling the manufacturing gaps as baby boomers retire. He adds that COVID-19 is making the labor challenge worse because many older workers are deciding to retire because they don’t want to risk getting sick by returning to the factory.

“The No. 1 thing that we can assist with is the labor shortage, and we do it very well because we’re quick to deploy and relatively low cost and quick to get into production,” Campbell says.

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