Incorporating Cobots into your packaging process can improve packaging efficiency and employee safety.
Cobots, short for collaborative robots, are designed to work alongside humans in shared workspaces. Cobots in packaging are used to make human workers more efficient, enhance performance and become more effective. Unlike robots, cobots usually work with employees, rather than replace them. It’s also a safe technology for the employees working alongside cobots because there is no need for cages or closed areas separating the cobots and workers.
Packaging cobots use sensors, vision, and smart technology. Some machines are hand guiding, meaning the cobot has an additional pressure sensitive device at the end of its hand. With hand guiding technology, the operating employee can teach the cobot its movements including how hard or soft to hold an object, and how fast and slow to move an object.
Cobots are designed with human user safety in mind. For example, if an abnormal object is in the cobots path it can stop, reverse, and maneuver around the object to avoid impact. If an employee needs to step in and work on a cobot for any reason, the cobot can sense it and stop moving. Further, even if an employee has entered the cobots zone, some can slow down but keep working, and then speed up quickly, avoiding wasteful stoppages and minimize slowdowns on the production line.
Why Cobots in Packaging?
Cobots in packaging helps with the jobs that are dirty, dangerous, or dull so employees can avoid repetitive strain and accidental injury while focusing on quality and safety. For example, they can assist with jobs such as picking, packing, palletizing, and handling rolls of film that are loaded onto packaging machines. There is less wear on employees due to heavy lifting, employees can avoid dangerous situations and repetitive tasks that may cause injury which will reduce employee turnover. Further, end users rely on robots to be flexible, modular, and easy to program. These benefits free up human labor and technical resources for other areas on the production line.
Some other benefits of cobots are their mobility and flexibility; they can be redeployed and can easily support multiple applications. Additionally, set up time for cobots is typically only a couple of hours compared to multiple days for traditional robots. A cobots flexibility is especially important on the production line; it can learn a new movement and adapt to unique needs quicker than traditional robots. For example, if the same food production line needs to manufacture multiple variations of foods, such as gluten free options or seasonal flavors, cobots can learn new movements from their human counterparts and adapt quickly. They also use minimal space on the production line so there is room for their human counterparts to operate.
Labor shortages and labor issues are another reason for integrating cobots in packaging. In a 2018 interview with Universal Robots’ Matt Moore, he says “At most every plant I visit, managers complain about labor shortages. Plants that want 100 workers only have 90. Plants that want 10 workers only have 8.” Purchasing and integrating cobots can make up for low labor numbers while providing safety and efficiency benefits to the employees on the line.
Return on Investment is a major factor when considering purchasing a robot or cobot in packaging. Matt Moore, from Universal Robots, says a six to nine month return on investment is possible when factoring local conditions. It is important to note that every situation is different, there are many online ROI calculators to get a more accurate measure. However, keep in mind benefits such as better-quality products, consistency, and efficiency that may not appear in ROI calculations.
For small and medium sized companies, the price tag for a cobot is more favorable than traditional robots. An affordable price can help revolutionize the industry for smaller companies that make up 70% of global manufacturing.
The cobot industry is also projected to see growth in the future. According to the International Federation of Robotics, of all industrial robot sales, cobot sales are projected to grow 34% and represents the fastest growing segment in industrial automation. In 2018 the cobot market was valued at $710 million and the CAGR is expected to climb to $12,303 million by 2025, a 50.3% increase. However, in a PMMI survey it was found that only 10% have adopted cobots in packaging. But, 86% of those surveyed who have implemented cobots report a significant increase in production. Additionally, 78% of that group reported cobots directly increased their company’s earnings, either from decrease in labor costs or increase in output.
Packaging Cobots in Action
Medela, a medical device manufacturer, cites skilled worker shortages, cost trade-offs, product quality, production scalability, and innovation in digital technology as reasons they invested in cobots for packaging. Medela is a rapidly growing company that needs to speed up throughput and using cobots to palletize is a way they are accomplishing that goal. This minimizes human error and cobots can work 24/7, leaving more time for production.
Medela values the safety features cobots provide; there is no need for cages, and employees can work side by side with the cobots. While cobots are safe and help keep workers from wearing down or becoming injured, many manufactures and workers view automation as a threat to their jobs. With cobots, Medela views automation as a transitional process where current workers can eventually become cobot operators.
Another cobotics benefit Medela is taking advantage of is flexibility. New packaging cobot lines allow for multiple stock keeping units eliminating the need for new palletizing lines. A smart conveyor moves the right product to the right palletizing cobot. Additionally, each cobot has the ability to palletize multiple SKUs at a time. This saves money and provides excellent value for Medela.
Finally, for Medela a clear benefit is the return on investment. Medela’s process engineering managers said, “The small capital expense vs. the expected return and benefits made for a very low risk-investment decision for us.”