Packaging robots in manufacturing
Packaging is one of the most time consuming and labour-intensive parts of the manufacturing process. ‘Picking and packaging’ refers to finding items in a warehouse, identifying them and then bringing them to a central point where they can be packaged, often in plastic but also wood, so that they are prepared for distribution. This typically involves dedicated staff working by hand and using machines such as fork lifts, shrink wrapping, and so on.
The issue with automating packaging is that requirements can be irregular, especially in ecommerce or the food sector, where packaging requirements depend very much on the specifics of each product. Packaging robots are effective where they can be used frequently, where employees understand how to manipulate them, and especially where physical exertion or repetitive tasks make the packaging task unsuitable for humans.
Cobots versus traditional packaging robots
Cobots – collaborative robots – are cheaper and more flexible that traditional robots. In the packaging sector, cobots can be deployed alongside warehouse staff to speed up and automate parts of the packaging process, as may traditional robots, although the payback profile is slightly different in the two cases.
Traditional robots have been used in the agricultural and food processing sectors for many years now; for example a carrot producer may sort them using a conveyor belt, which automatically weighs bags and seals shop-ready product. But for businesses where a range of different, irregular products are being assembled, especially those dealing with the final delivery out to consumers, these methods are not normally possible. Instead, labour-intensive pick and packing methods are used where a packer finds each individual item on its respective shelf, assembles and packs them together, then brings them to a lorry for distribution.
Traditional robots are fixed, perform one repetitive function, and are costly to install and maintain. By contrast, cobots – normally taking the form of a robotic arm – are low-cost, lightweight (relatively!) and reprogrammable, allowing their user to reprogram them to perform multiple tasks. Like traditional robots, they are able to lift heavy objects with ease and can perform tasks that are physically demanding or even impossible for humans without rest.
Payback times for packaging robots: labour costs
Packaging robots benefit from reduced payback times, often well under a year, and warrant consideration by packagers who suffer from seasonal labour shortages. Packaging robots can help smooth over these periodic difficulties in the labour market, which can present a significant problem for producers.
For example, businesses sending out food or drink products often see a vast increase in the amount of labour required during the run-up to Christmas. This means they need to hire new staff to continue operating, however these staff work on short term contracts and know they will not be returning afterwards, so often must be offered significantly improved hourly rates or bonuses at the end of the period. This in turn causes difficulties with existing staff, who may resent the temporary better paid additions, who themselves may be frustrated to be limited to working on a shorter timescale.
Using a robotic arm specifically to aid with packaging tasks can help improve the efficiency of existing workers – for example, the robot can be placed at the location of the shelf with the desired object and used to bring it down, or kept in the central packing location and used to apply layers of packaging under human guidance. Ensuring the mobility of the robot is very important in a picking / packing scenario, as the time spent travelling through the warehouse is one of the key drivers of overall efficiency.
Working alongside existing employees
It is important that the staff of the warehouse understand how to use the relevant machinery, both for safety reasons and also so they can be reprogrammed. One of the benefits of robotic arms is that they can be simply redirected to perform multiple different tasks, which means there need to be staff capable of managing this working on the floor. That means it is important to train staff properly in the use of the new robotic tools they will be working alongside, so that they are able to use them to their full potential.
This of course presents a significant difficulty for seasonal employees. Given the time necessary to train employees who only stay for a number of weeks or months, adding on the time and cost of training these employees to use a robotic arm is likely prohibitive. There are a few solutions to this: Firstly, the arms themselves are designed to be as simple to use as possible, allowing for a relatively speedy learning time for most users. Secondly, if and when these arms become standard in the industry, having a basic understanding of how they work will also likely be the norm for employees in picking and packing, who will have come across the tools before in other warehouses. The other option is to train only permanent employees in the use of the arm, and hire seasonal employees to do tasks the arm cannot do.
The issue currently is of course that the technology is not so widespread that you can expect most warehouse employees to have used these arms already
Conclusion: who can benefit from packaging robots
Many firms can reap potential benefits from using packaging robots in their process. Whether it is right for your business will depend on a few different factors, namely:
- Your current staffing situation: are labour costs inefficient, are you forced to regularly hire untrained seasonal staff.
- The exact details of your packing process: although it is easier than ever to deploy robots in a wide range of packaging situations, some products are more difficult than others.
- What payback time you are prepared to accept.
Packaging is one industry that has lagged behind general trends in automation and still relies on large amounts of seasonal, untrained labour. The spread of low-cost, reprogrammable robots promises to change that, but businesses need to understand that this will require changes to existing processes and the retraining of staff. For those that are able to successfully implement robotic arms, seasonal labour hiring and high staff turnover could become a thing of the past.